Some Writing Prompts

If you’ve followed my blog for a while or know me in real life, you know that I struggle with writing every day. I always tell myself that today I’ll write something or I can’t watch that show until I write 1,000 words. Telling myself those things hardly ever motivates me to face the page, however. It may have been this tendency to avoid the very thing I profess to enjoy most that motivated my housemate to buy this book for me.

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That was a few weeks ago. I won’t disclose how many prompts I’ve written to (ahem…) but I thought it would be fun to post some of them here, and explore why these prompts are useful for creative writing.

Prompt 1. What is your (or your character’s) favorite way to spend a lazy day?

Have you played The Sims? All Sims have a “lifetime goal,” something huge and hard to attain, and smaller goals, like going on a date or watching a movie. This prompt will tease out your characters’ smaller goals and explore your character’s lives outside the main plot of the story. I’m pretty terrible at giving my protagonists hobbies aside from “adventuring” or “using magic” or “work.” Learning what your character wants to do with their free time will give you more material to work with.

Also, pretty much every time the prompts ask “you” a question, you can replace it with “your character.”

Prompt 2. What is your favorite work of art? What do you love about it?

This prompt intrigues me because it opens a seldom-explored facet of worldbuilding. For writers of fantasy, figuring out what artistic styles suit your world can lend your story more believability. Do your artists work solely in mosaic? Are sculptures viewed as false idols? Do the nobles in your world keep art on their walls, and if so, what kind of art? What historical events are portrayed in art? If your character doesn’t like art, that’s an answer worth exploring, too.

Prompt 3. Name one thing you have lied to yourself about. Why did you do this?

I can imagine all sorts of ways this prompt can influence a story. Knowing a character hasn’t been honest with themselves can allow you, the writer, to add tension between characters, or between your protagonist and their environment. Recognizing lies like “I want this for myself, not because someone else wants it” or “I can’t get a better job than this” could be huge turning points for characters.

Prompt 4. Do you prefer taking risks or having a safety net?

This prompt is fairly straightforward, but can illuminate some personality traits about a character that had been hidden or obscured. To me, protagonists should take risks in stories—even small ones. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what your characters want or fear, however, and this prompt can help you answer that question and pin down what kind of risk your character will eventually take.

Prompt 5. What do you keep in your pockets/bag/purse?

This wasn’t in the prompt book my housemate gave me, but it’s one of my favorite prompts. I’ve used this in the past to figure out what my characters carry with them, what’s important to them, what they need (or think they need) to attain their goal. This can also help you avoid those moments where you think, “She needs a knife. Does she have a knife? Did I mention one in her pack?” Or, in a more contemporary setting, “Does he carry gum with him? Maybe he keeps old receipts in his pocket.”

That’s all the prompts for today. Next Monday, I’ll post a response to at least one of these prompts, and I hope you’ll write as well!

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Thankfulness and an Unrelated Shameless Promotion

I’m thankful for a lot of things, and probably not enough.

I’m thankful for my education: for the friends I’ve made, for the skills I’ve learned, for the ability to make mistakes and learn from them with relatively few consequences. I am thankful for the opportunity to attend good schools, for the privilege to prioritize my education.

I’m thankful for the apartment I have: for the safety it provides, for its comfort and warmth. I’m thankful to live in a maintained community with ample access to public transport and healthy (and not-so-healthy) food. I am thankful for my bed, my clothes, my shoes.

I’m thankful for my cat. The cat is thankful for me, too. I feed him and give him a dry place to sleep and he pays me in cuddles and cuteness.

I’m thankful for my fiancé, my best friend and partner. I’m thankful for his selflessness and his love and his undying belief in me. I’m thankful that he cares so deeply about me and about others.

I’m thankful, again, for my friends. I’m thankful for their support, for their happiness, for their humor. I’m thankful they choose to spend time with me.

I’m thankful for my body, which can do amazing things like write and draw and run. I’m thankful for my mind, which wonders and creates and questions. I’m thankful for my heart, which I’ve only recently accepted as something to be thankful for, and which allows me to care deeply for those around me.

I’m thankful for my family: their love, their support. I’m thankful to be in their thoughts. I’m thankful for their acceptance.

Most of all, I’m thankful to be alive. I’m thankful to walk this earth alongside seven billion other individuals and the countless lifeforms that call our planet home. I’m thankful to live in an era of technology. I’m thankful for the ability to comprehend and to convey information and to breathe clean air and to dance, listen to, and create music. I’m thankful that I get to share my life with so many wonderful people and that they choose to share their lives with me. I’m thankful for every new day.

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On an unrelated note, Please visit the blog for my grad program and read my post on tools for writing. You can read it here. I have used all four of the tools described in the post (I even wrote about Trello in a previous post on this blog) and am happy to answer any questions you may have.

On Writing, National Novel Writing Month, and Omega 84

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Remember when I said I would try to write every day for three weeks? Well, in a stunning turn of events (not), I failed. But much like my workout challenge, it wasn’t a complete failure. Out of twenty-six days, I wrote for sixteen days and missed ten. This includes creative writing and blog writing. Of those sixteen writing days, I wrote over 750 words on eight of them.

This is by no means my best record. But compared to the amount of creative writing I was doing a month ago, it’s a huge increase, and one that I’m proud of.

Let me tell you a story. In one of my classes, we were put into groups and given an assignment to create a fake publishing house. We also had to write fake query letters to the fake publishing houses. I didn’t think much of my query letters; none of my existing projects fit with any of the publishing houses in the class, so I made up some new ones. One of these stories I named Omega 84.

The fake publishing house I queried, Astral Waters Press, “publishes” science fiction novels featuring LGBTQ+ characters. Coming up with a fake story idea to fit those requirements seemed easy enough, I thought. So I wrote a query letter for a fake story called Omega 84. I won’t divulge too many details—suffice to say it features a gay woman who travels across space a few centuries in the future—but after I wrote the query letter, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In bed that night, I lobbed questions at my fiancé: What do you think of this? How could this be believable? What should I name the home planet for my character? He didn’t have many suggestions, but he provided support…and then a reminder that he wakes up at six in the morning for work. I stopped asking questions after that.

But I didn’t stop thinking about Omega 84. Pieces started coming together. A narrative arc formed. My character’s motivations became clear and before I fully realized what was happening, I had my first book idea in two years.

I decided (foolishly) to write it for NaNo. So far, I have about eight thousand words, an outline through chapter five of the book, and a rough idea of what happens after that. School caught up with me again and I didn’t write as much as I wanted to, but it’s a start—if a difficult one. Fantasy is my comfort zone: with few exceptions, it’s what I read and write. But science fiction isn’t a far cry from fantasy. (They’re shelved next to each other in bookstores and libraries for good reason!) And I’m not afraid to tackle this unfamiliar genre.

That said, I’ll need some help. I’ve chosen my books through the end of the year but I’ll need some new reads, including some science fiction books, for 2017. Have any suggestions? Drop a comment or tweet me @fictionlass (see the sidebar). And if you’re interested in following my progress with Omega 84, you can search this blog for the tag “Omega 84” or Twitter for the hashtag #Omega84. I fully intend to finish a complete draft of this book and then try to edit it. If I haven’t posted about it in a while, feel free to bug me. I look forward to hearing from you!

Thoughts on Trello

Ooligan Press uses a handy website called Trello to organize all its projects. Trello’s appearance is deceptively simple: you can create “boards,” which are comprised of “lists,” which in turn contain individual “cards.” The cards can contain links, pictures, attached documents, checklists, text descriptions, due dates… It’s a little overwhelming, to be honest. Here, I’ll show you my Trello account. Let’s start with the largest unit first: the board.

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Click to embiggen! (Opens in new window. All images can be embiggened.)

 

In this image, you can see I have two Personal Boards: my “Homework!” board and the default “Welcome” board. Below those are the Ooligan boards I frequent. These boards are similar to folders on your computer, and are basically digital representations of corkboards or filing cabinets. You could have a board for each writing project you’re working on, or for each class you’re taking, or for trips you want to plan—the options are endless. Let’s look at the next component of Trello: the list.

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On my Homework board, I have a list for each class I’m in: Intro to Book Publishing and Book Design Software. I also have a list for Ooligan work, blog posts I want to write, and a catch-all list called “Personal To-Do.” You might notice some different tags on the cards, like due dates, checklists, and colored labels. It probably looks overwhelming, but after only a few weeks of using Trello, I can quickly identify my overdue assignments, upcoming deadlines, time-consuming projects, and works-in-progress. Each list is composed of individual cards, like this one:

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From top to bottom, a card can show you:

  • the title of the card;
  • which list it belongs to;
  • labels and the due date, if applicable;
  • a description of the card (which you create);
  • a checklist to track your progress;
  • comments (which are useful if you’re working with other people);
  • and an activity log.

I’ve customized my labels so each color corresponds with a different type of work. I have labels for Writing: Creative, Writing: Expository, Reading, Big projects (3+ hours), and Editing. Another feature of the card is its ability to house attachments. You can import files from Google Drive or your computer with just a few clicks. I don’t use it very much, but many Ooligan boards do for groupwork and project planning. And once you’re done with a card you can archive it and get it out of your way.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but perhaps you’re still not convinced that Trello would be a useful tool for you. And you might be right. Maybe you’re one of those super cool people who has their life on track and already uses a bunch of planning and organizational tools. Or maybe you don’t care to be organized and would rather live life on the fly. However, if you use a planner, or keep any kind of list at all, or have trouble meeting deadlines, Trello is worth considering. It helps me keep track of my assignments better than a regular ol’ planner because I’m not limited by how much I can write in a book, and I can keep track of electronic readings with ease. The checklist feature helps me break down larger assignments into more manageable tasks—and it’s very satisfying to see the green icon that indicates a completed list. I can also change due dates easily and move cards between lists if I need to. Everything can be rearranged and customized. Plus, there’s a smartphone app, so I can add cards with new assignments without needing to bring my computer (or a planner) everywhere.

I highly recommend Trello for anyone looking for an organizational boost. By the way, it’s free. Let me know if you try it out: I’d love to hear your comments!

On Habits

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about working out daily, wherein I promised I would wake up early and work out before going to class. This may come as a surprise to you, but I totally failed to do that. I started waking up earlier, but instead of going to the gym, I used that extra time to work on homework. Yep. I chose homework over gym time. That says a lot about me, doesn’t it?

The thing is, it wasn’t a bad choice. I started getting to campus early enough to work on homework and projects before class. In fact, I finished a project five days early because I could work on it before and after class. The Max was less crowded earlier in the morning, so the commute was less stressful. Waking up earlier meant going to bed earlier, but I’ve been getting good amounts of sleep nearly every day and my sleep schedule better matches that of my fiancé. We now go to bed together somewhere around 10:30pm. He’s able to wake up at 6 to make coffee and mentally prepare himself for his workday, and I can wake up a little after him and see him before we go our separate ways.

Did I manage to keep my word and work out every day? No. But was I able to develop a good habit anyway? Heck yes! It’s nice to see my fiancé in the mornings and talk with him. On my old schedule, there were days where I wouldn’t speak at all until ten or later. Talking in the mornings with my fiancé helps me prepare for commenting in class. Some days I have a lot of social anxiety, which makes speaking up in class difficult because I flounder about or lose my train of thought or talk too quietly—or I just don’t make sense. But that doesn’t happen when I wake up early. Or, at least it doesn’t happen as much.

Now, if there’s one habit I want to have, it’s writing every day. I haven’t had a regular writing schedule since early high school. I wrote often enough in college, thanks to my writing classes, but I wasn’t ever able to write daily, or without someone imposing a due date on me.

Habits, apparently, take 21 days to form. If I could write 500 words a day for three weeks, I’ll be that much closer to being a good writer. Clearly, Elizabeth Bear writes every day—or at least, she did for a time. Brandon Sanderson and Jim Butcher write every day, I’m almost sure. Producing content is harder for me than editing it, but it wasn’t always that way. If I could find that part of me that can write with abandon, that can turn my editing mind off… Well, I’d feel a lot better about myself.

National Novel Writing Month is coming up, and while I seriously doubt my ability to write 50k words while also in grad school, I’ll try to write daily from now until December. I’ll check back in with you all in 21 days to let you know how I’m doing.

Ooligan Press Presents: Write to Publish

A large part of the publishing program at PSU is working at the university’s publishing house, Ooligan Press. Students are assigned group projects to work on, and this term I’m working on a conference called Write to Publish. It’s a day-long conference on February 4, 2017 at the PSU campus, and we’re going to have lots of cool vendors and publishing professionals there.

Why am I telling you this if the conference is still over three months away? Well, as part of raising funds for the conference, we’re hosting a writing contest! Well, two contests, technically. Our fiction contest accepts pieces of 1,000 words or fewer, on any genre. The Masters Review will be helping us by publishing the winning piece, and the first-place author will also receive a $50 cash prize. In addition to the fiction contest, we’re hosting a poetry contest. The theme for poetry is “Belonging” and the poem must be 40 lines or fewer. The Timberline Review will publish the winning piece, and the winning author will also receive a $50 cash prize.

Have something you’d like to submit? Click HERE for more contest details and the link to submit! Unfortunately, we do not accept any previously published work, and there is a $10 submission fee to help cover the cost of organizing the contest. BUT, we’ve only had a few submissions in each genre, so I’d say your chances of placing are fairly high. Plus, the contests are open to anyone, regardless of age, education level, or experience. So, even if you’ve never submitted your work to a contest before (or even shown it to anyone), you’re free to submit!

I can’t say enough how cool Ooligan Press is. It’s run entirely by students, all the way from the acquisitions process to the editing to the book design and finally to marketing and event planning. Part of why Ooligan started Write to Publish was to “demystify” the publication process, and the conference will have workshops, panel discussions, and even pitching sessions to achieve that end. Publishing your work can seem like a scary, undefined journey, but it doesn’t have to be.

Tickets are still available (and compared to other conferences, they’re quite affordable). The general adult ticket is $80 and the student ticket is $35. You can purchase them (as well as the contest entry tickets) HERE.

I encourage anyone and everyone interested in publishing their work to attend the conference. We would absolutely love to see you there. If you have any questions, check out the contest FAQ or shoot me a message and I’ll try my best to help!

Good luck, everyone! Hope to see you there!

Read Your Way to Better Writing

booksUnlike the vast majority of colleges (especially on the west coast), my alma mater offered two English degrees: Literature and Creative Writing. As part of the creative writing degree requirements, we had to take a certain number of writing courses in different genres—I studied the fiction and creative nonfiction tracks—and a variety of literature courses. Now, when I was a freshman, I didn’t understand why lit courses would be required for a creative writing degree. I wanted to write for the rest of my life, not read centuries-old manuscripts and analyze the author’s use of motif.

I’m probably not the only student who shunned the lit requirements at my school. I could do the work, but it wasn’t as interesting to me as writing my own stories or reading more modern fiction. No part of me wanted to read the works of nineteenth-century American authors, but I had to do it.

I don’t remember the specific moment when I realized why my professors required writing majors to take lit courses. I mean, I’d always had some vague understanding of the motivation behind it. Reading the stuff that came before you can make your writing better. But I hadn’t really internalized that. It wasn’t until I had taken a few writing courses that I truly realized the necessity of reading as a writer. The readings in my creative writing courses and the texts I read in literature courses allowed me to make informed decisions about my own writing: how to develop believable characters, for instance, and how to make characters interact with the setting of the story. Reading truly improves my craft—even reading stories I don’t like. (Especially the stories I don’t like.)

I know there are a number of non-reading writers out there, or writers who stick to reading works in a specific genre (typically the genre they intend to write). I’ve always been a fantasy writer and reader, and I probably always will be. But please know that there is so much to learn from reading other genres or other styles you’re not familiar with. Most of the books I’ve read recently have been in the high/epic fantasy realm, because that’s what I enjoy writing, and it seems perfectly natural to me to read only those books. But I’ve also read a number of more “literary” novels, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Tatjana Soli’s The Forgetting Tree, and those books have helped me hone my craft in ways the high fantasy books had allow me to neglect.

Reading as a writer helps in so many ways. It lets you know which stories have already been written, which characters and worlds have been explored. It provides insight on how to manage world building and character interactions and dialogue. It gives you a model for your story’s narrative arc. And, perhaps most important to writers who intend to sell their work, it allows you to draw comparisons between established novels and your own.

I refuse to accept the myth that reading books is a dying pastime. As long as there are writers, there will be readers.