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Family of origin issues ideal for story starters

If you're reading this post, then you have a family of origin. You may have disowned them or may spend time with them several times a year--like me. Regardless of how you feel about your family of origin, they can be a rich source for storytelling, no matter the genre you write.

A year ago, I submitted a story I wrote to a fall fiction contest sponsored by Scratch. I used a prompt from Janet Burroway's book, Imaginative Writing, that went something like, "Begin a story with something your parents used to say..."

Some of my mother's expressions cut so deeply into my psyche, despite not having heard them in years, I'm able to retrieve them from the memory center in my brain, as if I went searching for them daily rather than every ten years.

My  mother use to say things like, "You can fall in love a rich boy as easily as a poor one." Who knows? Maybe her mother said it to her. What is clear is that no women in my family have followed the previous generation's advice about who to fall in love with. None of us married Rockefellers. I guess example also speaks louder than words.

Though I have friends who swear they hate writing prompts and won't use them, I have a strong track record with prompts. I like the discipline of meditating on something--a saying, a word, a visual prompt like a painting or an image in real life, and then forcing myself to write about it.

After I typed my mother's saying, "You can fall in love with a rich boy...," the story poured out of me. As it turned out, my opening sentence caught the judge's attention, and she awarded me first place. (Maybe she had unresolved family of origin issues, too.)

Why was this prompt so successful? For one thing, the viewpoint character and point of view were established in an instant, stemming from a very organic place. Without thinking much about it, I realized the storyteller was an adult who'd be relaying an anecdote that occurred during her teenage years.

If you met my sweet little 83-year-old mother today, you might not believe we once had a tempestuous relationship, or, alternately, you would ascribe all the blame to me. Though I can't say I am grateful for the one-time animosity between us, I now realize it's a rich vein to mine for fiction writing.

How about you? Do you use prompts? Are there any prompts that you've used successfully and can share with Scrivengale readers? To what extent have you used family of origin issues in your writing?


Book Pick: Becoming a Writer

One of the unsung perks of a formal creative writing program is the curriculum, the books recommended by the program as well as the book list prepared by faculty by genre.

In the Creative Writing program at Wilkes University, they recommend you read three craft books before you arrive for your first residency: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, On Writing by Stephen King, and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.

While I found them all useful, my favorite was Dorothea Brande's, which believe it or not, was first published in 1934. Is the material dated? Not in the least. Though the materials and tools have changed, the organic process of writing hasn't changed in the least.

Here are a couple pointers from Brande's book to get you thinking about your writing life:

  • Stick to a schedule of early morning writing to get the full benefit of your unconscious mind. The best way to do this is to rise an hour earlier than is customary. Without any other distractions, getting the paper or a cup of coffee, sit down to write anything that comes into your head--last night's dream or something that happened the day before. The real value isn't what you write but that you write in that twilight zone between sleep and your full waking state.
  • Set a time to write during the day and stick to it--come what may. This is what Brande calls your debt of honor. If you have decided to write at seven o'clock after dinner or dishes, then at seven o'clock, "Write you must!" Write anything--blank verse, nonsense, limericks, a fragment of dialogue. Do this day to day, but each time choose a different hour. The important thing is that on the dot of the moment when you promised yourself you would be be writing that you are.
[Sidebar: I love how she says things like, "Write you must!"]
  • Take pains to recapture the innocence of eye. Take Henry James recommendation and make it a vow: "Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost." Set yourself a short period every day to take thought and recapture a childlike "innocence of eye." For roughly 30 minutes, transport yourself back to a state of "wide-eyed interest" as if you were five years old. Turn yourself into a stranger in your own streets.
I had forgotten how rich and inspiring this book was until I picked it up again to write this post. I'm off to Vermont for the weekend, but I plan to take it with me, to reinvigorate myself, to recommit myself to the goal of Becoming a Writer


Writing for good...

Libraries in Pennsylvania are having a tough go. State funding has been slashed, yet state mandates to provide a requisite number of service hours continue, despite manpower shortages. In Lancaster County where I live, a referendum that would have provided a dedicated tax of ΒΌ mill applied to the assessed value of all real estate or an estimated total of $6.75 million in funding annually to the Library System was voted down a few years ago.

(Sadly, people where I live will vote down anything that would raise their taxes, regardless of whether it's the right thing to do or impacts the quality of life for anyone other than the voter himself.)

While there is no easy solution to the financial stress our libraries are facing, I want to do something, besides paying overdue fines, which I'm quite good at, and am happy to pay, of course. So, here's my idea:

My area library, the Ephrata Public Library, is a terrific community resource. For years, I have participated in a bestsellers call service where they phone me when my favorite authors' new releases come in. You can download e-books, do research, take out audiobooks on compact disc and MP3 formats. They host specials events for all ages, fundraisers, and workshops. You can buy used books at their gift shop. I've already screened movie series there that would be hard to view through more commercial movie rental outlets.

So, I am participating in a writing marathon hosted by my favorite online forum, The Write Idea, on October 30. All proceeds will benefit the Ephrata Public Library. The writing marathon lasts 12 hours. I'm aiming to write 25 pages or roughly 6,250 words. You can sponsor me by the word, by the page, by the hour, or give a flat donation.

Please consider making a pledge by emailing me at or let me know your pledge amount in the comments section by October 29.


Writing improves thinking

Yesterday, a friend told me she felt especially sad. On the same day she'd sent her late mother's things to auction, her son wrote a poignant blog post about leaving the United States for the mission field in India, forwarding what he'd written.

The post was moving, encapsulating both the excitement of embarking on a journey to a foreign country and a healthy fear of the unknown as well as a sadness at leaving the only life he's known. Here's an excerpt:

Our tickets are bought. November 18. That's the day we uproot our little family, board a plane, and skip across the globe to plant ourselves in South Asia. The date stares at me from the calendar on my desk.

I had breakfast with my brother Joe the other day. I'd always thought moving overseas would be one big, dramatic airport-hugs-and-kisses goodbye. But it's really a thousand goodbyes that creep into everyday moments like bagels and coffee with a brother and make them heavy with solemnity.

My friend's son and his wife have been blogging for years now about raising children and following their call. As a result, he writes clearly. He's able to take what's in his head and heart and put it on paper with clarity, with precision, with style.

No process is better for clarifying thinking than writing. It forces you to confront what you think and feel about things. If you can't express your thoughts in your writing, then you haven't spent enough time alone with them, distilling them. If you want to move people with your thinking, then practice extracting it from your head and putting it into words.

In my experience, if you want to think better, write. Then write better. Plying each skill improves the other, in turn.


Hey, how are those writing goals coming along?

One of the best craft classes at the June creative writing residency at Wilkes University was conducted by poet, novelist, and freelance writer Lori A. May. Maybe Lori's advice resonated deeply with me because this residency was my last one in the master of arts program. Soon thereafter, I would be relaunched into the "real" writing world--where I hung out before starting a formal creative writing program--to succeed or fail based on my efforts, without the crutch of mandatory weekly submissions to faculty mentors.

Lori suggested writers use a simple framework to create and follow concrete goals for themselves, year by year. Basically, you merely set up a three-column table or spreadsheet with these headers:

GOALS FOR 2010-11 | What I Need To Do Now To Achieve Goals | Calendar Months

Then you fill in the spreadsheet. For my 2010-11 goals, I listed:

  1. Revise SHAKER mss and resubmit to [certain publisher]
  2. Complete three of five WIPs novels
  3. Have 4 quality journal credits to add to my clips
  4. Make some money from my writing
  5. Meet new writers, editors, agents
  6. Be a better Literary citizen
  7. Improve my visibility as an author
  8. Further my craft and push myself as a writer
  9. Have a fiction manuscript accepted for publication
  10. Cultivate and deepen opera network in preparation for book tour
 In terms of What I Need To Do Now To Achieve Goals, I listed the following concrete steps:
  1. Do a week's worth of research and finish rewrite
  2. Prioritize list--complete and polish one novel every four months
  3. Polish up new stories and submit to a journal every two weeks
  4. Send short fiction to paying markets; begin writing pieces for demand studios; look for casual work at a small publisher
  5. Find and begin more online relationships; attend a conference; take cards, follow up
  6. Write at least one book review per month; find books I can review on Amazon or at other locations, i.e., Twitter once a month
  7. Create website, interact on social media, do cross-promotions with other authors, give readings
  8. Read 2 pieces of literary fiction; enter two contests;
  9. Obtain a new agent with a record of selling fiction
  10. Create template for interview questions; do one two interviews a month on Operatoonity.
I  created my spreadsheet in mid-July. So, two full months later, how much have I accomplished?
  • I improved my visibility as a writer by winning an national songwriting contest sponsored by the Washington National Opera--my lyrics won first place as selected by Placido Domingo (Goal #7)
  • I created this new blog on writing and another blog to review audio-books (Goal #8)
  • I attended a Social Media conference. Though not a writing conference, it did expand my social media toolkit for marketing myself and my writing. (Goal #8).
  • I widely queried my opera book in August, receiving and fulfilling fifteen requests for partials or complete manuscripts thus far. They continue to dribble in one or two a week. (Goal #9) 
  • I followed some new writers, editors, and agents on Twitter, to build my online network (Goal #5)
  • I completed and requested new interviews with opera companies, directors, and composers. (Goal #10)
  • I did two readings since setting my goals and I sold three anthologies in which my work appeared (Goal #4 and Goal #7)
  • I'm doing a write-a-thon on October 30 to benefit my local library (Goal #6)
I have a long way to go toward realizing my goals. But I'm not displeased with my effort in the last two months. I can and will need to work harder in the coming months. Yet, thanks to Lori's framework, I'm heartened and rejuvenated at the progress made, for which I had no mechanism to chart my effort in the past.

How about you? How do you go about setting and realizing your writing and publishing goals?

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