“Today, I realize acceptances and those dratted rejections remain an integral part of the writing life.” ~~ Catherine Forster
NOTE: Right now I’m adding new prompts every 4 weeks. The current ones were added on 12/05/22 and are in this color. Scroll past the top 2 articles to find them.
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Are you having trouble finding or narrowing the topic for your book? If so, this article is for you.
CHASING TARZAN: Finding My Topic and Turning It into a Story
By Catherine Forster
LATE BLOOMIN’ WRITER
By Gaye Buzzo Dunn
I never thought I would become a short story writer when I retired.
For many years I was a business manager wearing many different managerial hats for four great companies. My strengths were Administrative, Operations and eventually, Human Resources, the people side of the business. It was the many human experiences, employee stories, endless procedural and business writings and, most important, my life-long love of reading books that encouraged me to explore the writing craft.
I knew I wanted to write short stories and non-fiction articles, but had no idea where to begin my research. Finally, I found a great site, “Breaking into Print,” that entailed a year’s study with a professional writing group and teacher/coach. I cannot describe the excitement when my instructional notebook and writing books (i.e., On Writing Well by William Zinsser) and first assignment arrived. I had become a Florida snowbird and spent many winter months reading and writing at the beach or outdoors in the state’s wonderful sunshine. One day, I saw a grey-haired, elderly lady sitting on the shore next to a younger woman coaxing her into the water. I thought to myself, a daughter helping her mother enjoy the beach. I wrote down the words, “Side by Side,” and two years later, I published a story around these two women.
I was excited when I submitted the first 1000-word short story. Discouragement followed when the assignment was returned. It contained suggestions, grammatical corrections, a few typos I missed. Although disappointed, this first assignment was an eye opener. I knew I had a long learning curve ahead of me. I plugged along, studying, and writing assignments and through the following months, there were a few accolades in the assignment margins, fewer corrections, and more ideas for enhancing the prose. I happily received my graduation Certificate. Short story writing was my goal. I was eager to write and submit my first short story.
I learned writing can be hard work and yes, it’s a job. I continued to educate myself with many writing books. (One of my favorites- “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamont) I wish I could say the first years were easy. They weren’t. Looking back, I learned editor rejection and acceptance feedbacks were especially valuable. Although form letter negative rejections left me with wounded spirits, editors who took time to give my work positive feedback encouraged me and made my day! This particular feedback has inspired me from the day I received it and is posted above my desk on my writer board: “Thank you for sending us “Faraway Trails.” While it doesn’t fit our current needs, our editors enjoyed reading it. It’s great, and we hope this will not discourage you from continuing to write and submit. This is not a reflection on your work or on your worth as a writer; this piece is simply different from what we envision at this time. Again, thank you for trusting us with your work. We wish you well and hope you find a publication for which “Faraway Trails” is a perfect fit! Continue to write your truth, and definitely consider us for future submissions.”
Also posted, is a postcard I received from my alma mater, The College of St. Rose: “Congratulations for having your essay chosen for the Saturday Evening Post’s 25 winners’ contest. What an honor!”
Today, I realize acceptances and those dratted rejections remain an integral part of the writing life. I continue to write and in earlier years I set up a website platform as a communication tool to share my various monthly musings. It has an apt title: Pen and Patience.com. The pen to write my stories and the patience to await, hopefully, positive results. I tell myself, every time I pick up my pen, I am a published short story writer.
Catherine Forster honed her powers of observation early on, and later applied them to artistic endeavors. Although it didn’t happen overnight, she discovered that seeing and hearing a bit more than the average person can be beneficial. As an artist, her work has exhibited in museums and galleries across the United States and abroad. Her experimental films have won accolades and awards in more than thirty international film festivals, from Sao Paulo to Berlin, Los Angeles to Rome, London to Romania. Through her work, she explores the dynamics of girlhood, notions of identity, and the role technology plays in our relationship with nature.
Turning an Idea into a Story
by Amy S. Cutler, author of A Shadow of Love
A spooky story that gets your heart racing and your spine tingling
Imagine walking down a street – any street – just taking in the sights and enjoying the day. There are people around, maybe a few dogs, a cat, a mouse heading into a drainage pipe. The scene may be interesting, but most people just pass by, thinking about their day or what they will say to their wife/husband/child/dog when they get home late. A writer thinks about these things too, with a few more thoughts piled on top. Thoughts like, “Boy this day really is beautiful, I wonder what would happen if the sky opened up and aliens took over the street?!” or, “That dog is trying to get to the cat, who is trying to get to the mouse. Why is that happening? What if there is a secret society happening on the other side of that pipe, and only the mouse can fit, but if the dog reaches the pipe first maybe he will shrink down to mouse size and run through, locking the other two out?”
In other words, being a writer is fun. Stories can come from anywhere, and the ideas are almost unstoppable. Taking an abstract idea and creating the first bits of a story around it is the fun part, playing the “what if” game until there is enough juice to fuel the creative fire is a great way to spend any day. The harder part is getting to the center of the idea and discovering if there is enough there to create an actual story, whether it be a short story, novella, or novel.
Sam Rebelein, author of Edenville which will be released in 2023 and The Poorly Made and Other Things in 2024, is a horror and memoir author whose work has appeared in a number of speculative fiction publications, such as Bourbon Penn and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. He said if he can hear a good enough voice, he knows he can pull a whole story out of an idea. He explains, “If the idea is just an image or scenario, I usually have a much harder time figuring out what’s on the either side of that image or scene. But if I hear a specific voice that has a story to tell, I can typically follow it pretty easily from one sentence to the next.”
If Rebelein hits around five thousand words and feels like the voice he’s following is just revving up, he can tell that he has a longer project. “It tends to be about the size of the backstory for whatever image I have, and the word count. If I have just an image or scene and NOT a voice, that’s when things get out of hand, because then I’m trying to over explain myself to get to know that scene.”
Of course, there are key questions to ask before pulling a story together. For Rebelein, they include what is the urgency and beat of the story, and what is the best way to lay out all of the important information as soon as possible. “For instance, if I have a first-person narrator, how can I get them to reveal their age, gender identity, and name on page one?”
In 2016, Lisa Cron wrote a book titled, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). It is a writing guide that gives an alternative to the typical pantsing or plotting methods of writing a first draft. In it, she says that a story is about how the things that happen affect someone in the pursuit of a different goal, and how that person changes internally as a result. “What happens in the story is the plot, the surface events of the novel. It is not the same thing as what the story is about. Not by a long shot.” She goes on to explain that the internal change is what the story is actually about, “How your protagonist’s external dilemma – aka the plot – changes her worldview.”
There is endless advice on the best way to write a story: there is pantsing and plotting and anything in between, or outside of those boxes. Whatever your style, it is important to keep the very basic five W’s in mind: who, what, where, why, and when. Of course, the how is of equal importance in storytelling. After the idea is solid and the beginnings of the kinks are worked out, it’s all about sitting down and getting the words out. Writing can be quite cathartic, and when we are lucky, the voices in our heads come out through our words and create a story. As Rebelein says, “When some part of me has something to say, it says it! And I just follow along.”
Author Amy Cutler earned her master’s degree in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Her work can be found in Tales to Terrify, wow-women on writing, the Pitkin Review, Wellness Universe, and Elephant Journal. Her writing focuses on suspense, horror, poetry, science fiction, and the occasional love story. A Shadow of Love is a paranormal romance story of an abused woman and a dead poet published by Black Rose Writing,
- When the leaves turn…
- I am grateful for…
- When fall comes…
- The World Series…
- On Thanksgiving my spouse/child/significant other/ dog gives me…
- Shopping for . . .
- When the pressure of the holidays mounts . . .
- If I could preserve one memory . . .
- If I could rewrite one memory . . .
- Now that 2022 is almost gone . .
Set a timer for 12 minutes.
Finish the sentence start of your choice.
Write the next sentence.
When the timer rings, find a stopping place or keep writing until you finish your thoughts.
Read what you’ve written. Underline your 3 favorite lines.
We’d love to have you share some or all of it in the comments section below. If you share, I’ll tell you what I love in your writing. If you ask for critiquing, I’ll send that to you privately.
Thanks for participating. If you haven’t participated, why not try it today?
All writers get stuck, including me. COVID was my latest excuse. What’s yours? Try writing about it.
Do you want to write? Schedule some time each day. Find a regular place to work and put a do not disturb sign on the door. Write for 20 minutes a day. It will add up. Go to 30 or 40 minutes whenever you can. Take weekends off if you prefer to gather material by spending time with family, friends, or hobbies.
Here’s a list of additional techniques to try. They should prime the pump and help you let your words flow:
- Write about a new character.
- Write about a new situation.
- Write about today’s world.
- Try any new genre.
- Set up a writing group with your rules.
- Take pictures on your cell and write about them.
- Write about a failure and how you overcame it.
- Write about a success and how it bolstered you.
- Go for five days without writing anything except urgent e-mails and grocery lists. Then write about how you spent the time when you weren’t writing.
- Find a new place to write or clean out your office and turn your desk around.
- Take on a mentor or mentee.
- Take a writing class.
- Take a class in something other than writing. There are tons of extension courses available and you can attend and meet people without leaving home.
- Read in a new genre.
- Host a read-out-loud party and discuss how people felt about reading their own work.
- Journal about your writing. Why are you stuck?
- Write a conversation that your protagonist and antagonist have in a neutral place.
- Pick an ending and then go back and decide how to get there—you can always change your mind later.
- Pick any sentence from a published book. Write it as your first sentence and go from there. See what happens.
- Write about what’s changed since you first discovered writing.
When you’re done with your favorite topic, share what you wrote with a trusted writing partner and maybe with someone who knows nothing about writing—just for contrast. Ask each person what they liked.
Make a list of places where you can submit it –local, regional, or national writing site. Submit two a day and tell them it’s a simultaneous submission. Then write about the joys of finding someone to publish this and pick another topic to write about.
Too personal? Not if you frame it as a writing exercise that worked. If you’d like to give me credit for inspiring it, of course I would be honored. In turn I’ll share your success on Writer Advice,www.writeradvice.com.