Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving Prompts

In between watching sports and eating too much, maybe you’ll feel like tackling a writing prompt! What’s your view on Turkey Day? Take ten minutes to write about….

--My earliest memories of Thanksgiving….
--“I hate you!” Melinda shouted, right before she spotted the pumpkin pie….
--What are you most thankful for this Thanksgiving?
--Justin’s favorite day of the holiday season was the day after Thanksgiving, when every single woman he knew….
Thanksgiving art courtesy of Gravity X9 at

No Writing Group Meeting 11-26-08

The Just Write Writing Group (formerly known as the Northwest Writers’ Group) will not be meeting tomorrow, November 26, 2008, since it’s the day before Thanksgiving. We’ll be back next week, December 3, 2008, at our usual time, 1:00 - 3:00 p.m.

If you’re a Las Vegas writer and would like to know more about our writing group, please feel free to contact me for more details.
Photo courtesy of Angel Norris at

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Beth & Roger & Other Prompts

Freewrite for ten minutes about....

--Beth was in love with Roger and wanted to marry him, but….
--If you could go back in time to the first Thanksgiving, what advice would you give to the Native Americans of Massachusetts?
--I like/dislike Thanksgiving because….
--The spotlight blinded Jerome as he….
--What’s the story behind your most visible scar?
Photo courtesy of melbia at

A Prescription for Self-Doubt: Blogging

Over 100 million blogs are posted on the Internet. With all those ideas and opinions out there, why would a writer want to throw her hat into the electronic ring? What could any of us say that isn’t already being said—in millions of other ways? You might not get rich and famous writing a blog, but blogging offers writers several benefits. It allows writers to create an online portfolio, establish an Internet presence, make new contacts, keep in touch with friends, and promote their work. It’s also a way to help overcome self-doubt.

If you think self-doubt is a topic strictly for self-help books, then go talk to a writer. We question ourselves about what we write, how we write, who we write for, and why we write. We worry about commas, spelling, dangling participles, and other technical-sounding English errors, even before we know their horrible names. And that’s before any work leaves our desk. Writers who seek publication play a bonus round of the self-doubt game when the rejection slips arrive, when the old adage “You can’t get accepted if you don’t get rejected” makes you want to scream. How can a writer confidently move forward without succumbing to self-doubt? Why does it matter, anyway?

Self-doubt sinks writers for two reasons: it clouds a writer’s voice and can prevent a writer from speaking at all. Who wants to read vague, watery, bland writing? What do you think when you read writing peppered with these kinds of words: seemingly, perhaps, might, apparently, reportedly, some say, they say. Reportedly, some say the smog layer might possibly be caused by fluctuating conditions. Yawn. Who needs Ambien? Spit it out, whatever you want to say.

Are you worried people will disagree with you? I assure you that some will. I have two words for you: so what. So what if you’re interested in something obscure, unusual, or unpopular. Write about it anyway. Be informed, do some homework, be fair as appropriate, and if you’re passionate about a topic or opinion, let your enthusiasm show. So what if you hate Oprah, think George Clooney is ugly, or feel the economy is just fine. If no one else agreed with you, would that change your opinion? Remember, it’s just like the teacher told us in school when she urged us to raise our hands: if you’re thinking about it, someone else is, too. (And remember that on the Internet, you never know who is reading—Ms. Powerful or Mr. Sexiest Man could read your rant about them; you never know.)

A successful writer has to be willing to put her opinions and ideas out there, and the blogosphere is a good place to step into the shallow end of the pool. Attaching our name to an idea can be as terrifying as walking out on stage. Yes, other people—people not related to you, not anyone you’ve met in your writing group—can read your blog if it’s posted on the Internet. But your audience will probably stay small and reasonable, at least in the beginning. Theoretically, fielding comments and e-mails from this smaller group will prepare you for the deluge of calls, letters, and e-mail you’ll receive once your work is on the best-seller list, or, more likely, for the day your mother-in-law finally reads your blog post about the time you fed your serving of her prize-winning stuffing to the dog.

Blogging isn’t the only way to banish self-doubt. Anything that encourages a writer to embrace his voice and opinion will work. I’ve found the blogging community to be supportive and encouraging, and the comments I receive from readers reassure me that my work is being read. Along with my writers’ group, writing blogs has helped me to keep writing, even on those days when I thought the only thing I should be allowed to write was a grocery list.

And I can’t say that I’ve given up on the thought that my blog will find a bigger audience. I know I said that you can’t expect to get rich and famous by blogging, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You never know who’s reading, and that’s what makes it fun.
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Fuchs at; also visit her work at

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sunrise & Other Prompts

Pick a prompt and write for ten minutes, without stopping. Resist crossing out or backspacing.

--The hour before sunrise….
--The best gift I ever received was….
--“I’m so sick of you and your obsession with….”
--The motel looked fine, but the truth was….
--Do you have house plants? How many? How did you acquire them?
--Do you know the history of Veterans Day?
Photo courtesy of Paula Pandey Chhetri at

Registering Your Work With the Copyright Office

I got a call last week from a writer with a question about copyright registration. This is one of the most common areas I get questions on; people want to know how to protect their work. The writer I talked to didn’t want to have to transmit credit card or other personal data over the Internet, and she was looking for the easiest way to register a manuscript via some other means. I logged onto the U.S. Copyright’s website and found that you have three options for getting your work officially registered. You can upload your manuscript and your payment, all via the Internet; you can complete an online form that you print out (the printed form will contain a bar code that makes it unique to you), attach it to your manuscript, and send it all in with a check via regular mail; or you can contact the Copyright Office and request all forms in hard copy so you don’t have to use the Internet at all.

Remember that your work is protected by copyright law from the moment you write the words, whether you insert the copyright mark © or not, whether you register it or not. The creation of it copyrights it automatically. Official copyright registration is a formal step so that if your rights are violated, you can demonstrate conclusively that the work is yours. In the event you had to prove work was yours, you could also show other supporting evidence such as files and notes (in what would be a civil law suit), but official registration is the gold standard. “Poor man’s copyright,” in which a writer mails himself a sealed copy of his manuscript so that the post mark can verify the date of creation, won’t hold up in court—there’s no way to prove you didn’t mail yourself an empty, unsealed envelope.

Your rights are violated when your work is used without your permission. What’s known as “fair use” is permitted so we may quote authors, but fair use is also limited use. Always give proper attribution when quoting someone. In the case of song lyrics, you’re better off to request permission to use any portion of the lyrics; music rights are more stringent in that regard. Some work is more prone to theft—movie and television scripts, for instance—and the copyright office has a special “pre-registration” process for these types of manuscripts. It’s an expensive process: $100 as opposed to $45 for regular registration.
Copyright image courtesy of

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Creativity: No Flowers Required

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “creative writing”? Do you restrict it to a specific genre, such as fiction? Do you have uncomfortable flashbacks to miserable days spent in high school English class reading short stories that mystified and bored you? Does it mean ornate descriptions and a profusion of fancy and inventive phrasing? I’m pleased to tell you that good creative writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, shares the same characteristics as all other good writing. Good writing doesn’t draw attention to itself. It tells a story.

For instance, what do you think of Ernest Hemingway? Was he a creative writer? Undoubtedly. Read the opening to his short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too dunk he would leave without paying, so they kept a watch on him.

Read Hemingway’s paragraph closely and pay attention to all the adjectives. See if you can find an adverb. And how about all those run-on sentences and the lack of any commas after introductory phrases? So much for those red felt-tipped comments from your English teacher.

But this is fiction, of course, and many people want to tell a non-fiction tale. Can non-fiction still be creative? Absolutely. I’ll give you three examples, all of them the opening paragraphs of the non-fiction book cited.

A hermit crab lives in my house. Here in the desert he’s hiding out from local animal ordinances, at minimum, and maybe even the international laws of native-species transport. For sure, he’s an outlaw against nature. So be it.
--Barbara Kingsolver, in
High Tide in Tucson, her book of essays

Not long after I moved with my family to a small town in New Hampshire I happened upon a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of town.
--Bill Bryson, in
A Walk in the Woods, his story about hiking the Appalachian Trail

Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.
--Jon Krakauer, in
Into Thin Air, his account of the tragic events on Mt. Everest in 1996

These examples should reassure writers that creativity doesn’t solely live in fiction or fanciful language. From Bryson’s simple one-sentence paragraph to Krakauer’s detailed description of the amazing view atop Everest, the creativity is apparent. The subject matter, the pacing, and the clean flow of language draws us into non-fiction just as it does to fiction.

Notice the grammatical sins that our English teachers would have dinged us for. Run-on sentences. A sentence fragment. A paragraph of only one sentence. Do these “errors” distract from the work? Not at all; just the opposite.

While some writers groan at the thought of ladling fancy words over their work, some are disappointed that their flowery phrasing, their “darlings,” must go. Remember, “creative” means inventive and imaginative, not dense, fictitious, or complicated.
Photo courtesy of Sanja Gjenero at

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Prompts 101

Let’s talk about prompts.

The purpose of a writing prompt is to get you writing—writing without stopping, over-thinking, or re-writing. It’s a spark for an idea. Sometimes the idea you get from a prompt may be something wildly outside the context of the prompt, or it might focus on a different aspect of the language. Let’s take Mary and Jacob, for instance, in the first prompt below. You might not have any idea what Mary said next, but perhaps it reminds you of a crazy trip you took. Maybe you know a woman named Mary, and her face popped into your mind. Whatever direction your creative impulse takes you, follow it! Remember, the purpose of a writing prompt isn’t to follow directions. It’s to write. If Mary and Jacob don’t inspire you, pick another prompt. Then give yourself ten minutes to write without stopping. Who knows what you might wind up with?

--Mary couldn’t believe what she heard her husband, Jacob, saying. “A vacation to where? No, I don’t understand! Why would you want to go to….”

--After hours of fiddling, Mark decided he knew the best way to fix his cranky computer. He marched into the garage and grabbed….

--If you were in charge of deciding when Christmas decorations and displays would appear, what date would you pick and why?

--Veronica knew her boyfriend had a bad temper, but she never thought he would….

--Does your home have a fireplace? Do you enjoy using it, or is it more of a bother than it’s worth?

--Charles was digging through old boxes in his garage when he found it. How many years had it been? Stunned at his discovery, he sat down to look at….

--If I could be anywhere right now, I would be….

--Diana’s notebook was sitting on the table. Linda knew she shouldn’t read it, but she couldn’t help herself. Linda rationalized invading Diana’s privacy by telling herself….

--Do you decorate for Halloween? Do your neighbors? What do you think about the growing popularity of Halloween decorations?

--Ted wanted a hobby, but he was having a hard time deciding on one. Finally, he decided to take up….
Photo courtesy of Ove Tøpfer at