How to Craft Stories – the Hallmark Movie Way

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I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with Hallmark movies. I’ve been watching that channel on and off now for at least five years. Especially during the holiday season, I am glued to Hallmark and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, losing more than two months of my life as I immerse myself into their holiday rom-coms.

As I watch their productions, however, I notice a pattern in story telling, which really isn’t hard to do. Hallmark movies follow their own story structure, though it isn’t that different from other types of films or from romance novels. Hallmark gets a bad rap for its formulaic story structure, but that’s what makes them so popular with their viewers, who come to expect those feel-good stories. After you’ve watched as many as I have, one story looks and sounds just like the next.

That said, I enjoy these movies because they make me feel good at the end. As a hopeful romantic (why they call it hopeless, I’ll never understand), I’m always rooting for the couple to get together. I like to see that two people can find happiness despite the obstacles thrown in their path.

I also enjoy these movies for the pure escapism they provide from the everyday world. I suppose if the outside world didn’t seem so dark and hostile at times, Hallmark wouldn’t be as popular. Further, I like what they have done for my imagination, which keeps spilling out a stream of story ideas that may or may not fit the Hallmark structure.

But as a writer, I recognize the pitfalls of these films too, such as the predictable plot structure. I also dislike how they engross me so much that I lose time away from writing. Since Hallmark began showing their annual barrage of Christmas movies in late October (another aspect I dislike — way too early, in my opinion), I’ve made little progress toward my own writing projects. I’m ready for January when I can roll up my sleeves and get back to work.

As I mentioned, there is a set structure to these stories. I’ve outlined the basic elements below, based on my own observations as well as comments from screenwriters and producers who presented at a Story Summit workshop recently.

1. Start with a strong protagonist. Rom-coms feature female leads who enjoy an aspirational career, such as a lawyer, a bakery owner, florist or nurse. While she seems content with her career, she has one great desire to achieve something within her career or outside of it. She feels her life is complete just as it is and is NOT looking for love.

2. Surround the protagonist with a supporting cast. The female protagonist usually has one or two close companions who are her confidants. They provide counsel and advice when they see she needs it, and encourage her when she feels down. In addition, she may be part of a larger group of friends or colleagues at work or in the community.

3. Some incident sets the action into motion. This is true for all stories, not just Hallmark rom-coms. The female lead might get a plum assignment, get engaged or break off a relationship, or maybe she receives an inheritance. Something significant happens that sets her on a course that puts her in the path of her love interest.

4. Create a compelling love interest. No Hallmark rom-com would be complete without the love interest. He may not get along with the female lead at first. They likely clash over conflicting goals or they’re fighting for the same thing but in different ways. However, he complements the female lead in ways that may not be obvious at first. He provides a skill or specialized knowledge that helps her achieve a goal, and occasionally, she does the same for him.

5. Allow the couple to grow together over time. The two leads are thrown together to work toward a common goal – planning a fundraiser, putting on a production, or solving a mystery. The more they work together, the closer they get and the more attracted they become to the other person. They each provide the other with a perspective they’re lacking. They keep fighting the attraction, however. Further, one or the both of them are harboring a secret that could tear them apart.

6. Create confrontation by revealing the protagonist’s secret. Once the secret is revealed, a confrontation ensues and the leads wonder if they can trust the other person. All seems lost. But through the separation, the female lead begins to realize what’s really important to her.

7. Save the kiss for last. They see the fruits of their labors in the final scenes – they reach their fundraising goals, the production takes place and they solve the mystery. The couple reconciles their differences because they each realize they are better together than they are apart. They finally come together for a kiss, which takes place in the very last scene.

A couple of other pointers: For Christmas-themed stories, either the protagonist or love interest lacks the holiday spirit, so the other person helps them regain it by engaging them in Christmas activities. That said, there are so many times I can watch scenes of playful snowball fights, baking cookies or Christmas tree lightings.

I will leave with one more bit of advice, and this stems from a personal pet peeve. Keep the title short and pithy, which will be easier for readers and viewers to remember. I find the longer movie titles are distracting and do nothing to entice me to watch.

As a writer, I’ve begun to look at movies the same way I experience books. I pay more attention to the key elements, like the characters, plot, setting and dialogue. I observe how the story unfolds, the relationship of the characters and I consider different ways I can tell my stories. This can either be helpful to me or a distraction. That said, I notice that when I’m immersed in the movie or book, I don’t pay attention as much attention to those details because the story is too compelling. That means those elements are working well together.

Whether writing a rom-com novel or a film script, these story telling elements will create happy endings that will make readers feel good.

To learn more:
Inside the TV Networks’ Battle for Christmas Movie Supremacy

How to Write Stories That Will Inspire Your Readers

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Browse the Internet for “writing inspiration” and you’ll find pages of links to articles that describe how  to find inspiration for writing. But when you put the shoe on the other foot, when you search for articles about writing to inspire others, you’ll find very few articles that address that issue.

How do you create a story that not only engages with your audience, but inspires them? How do you shift the focus from seeking inspiration within yourself to helping others become inspired?

In this season of giving, it seems fitting that we all consider ways to give, share and, yes, inspire others. What better way to do that than through our writing?

If your goal is to share stories of inspiration with readers, here are a few ways to do that.

1. Be authentic. Be real with your readers. Tell personal stories of your own struggles, which makes you relatable. Readers are interested in knowing who you are, your triumphs and challenges, your fears and joys. They want to read about the obstacles you faced in your life and how you overcame them. “All these are common traits in many stories and inspire the reader to do the same with their own lives,” writes Bethany Cadman at Writer’s Life. People want to hear your story because they want to believe that they’re not alone in their experiences.

2. Bring lightness and warmth to your writing. Be personable as if you are having a conversation with a good, close friend. Add humor if it comes naturally to you, but don’t make jokes just because you can, which can come across as forced. It might be helpful for you or someone else to read your story out loud to make sure you’ve captured the right tone.

3. Share a positive message. Think about the message you want to convey, whether it’s hope, love, resilience, self-confidence or courage. Readers want to believe in the goodness in others, and in the goodness of the world at large.

4. Write with emotion. Writing with some emotion – joy or sadness, fear or excitement – can help readers empathize with you because you’ve shown your “realness.” If you’re writing about the death of a dear friend, for example, let readers see and feel your pain and loss. As I mentioned previously, people want to believe that they are not alone in their experiences. The better you are at writing with emotion, the more exciting, exhilarating and inspiring your stories will be to your readers, writes Cadman.

5. Remember why you write. If you ever find yourself at a loss for what to write next or if you’re searching for a story that will make a difference, go back to your “why,” suggests author Julie Petersen at Bang2Write. Think again about why you write and who you write for. Think about what is your passion. When you remember your why, finding the right stories to inspire others will be much easier.

6. Be brave in your writing choices. It’s not always easy to write about deeply personal and meaningful events of your life, but sometimes it’s necessary to heal yourself. Still there’s a lot of emotional pain to muddle through before you can reveal your old wounds. It takes a great deal of courage to step out of your comfort zone to spill your guts on the page, but readers will usually understand that process because they’ve gone through something similar in their own lives. Taking a stand on an issue and speaking your truth can be scary, but despite those fears, it is likely to garner the respect of your readers, more than you know.

Whether you share stories of heartache or of personal triumph, it’s not easy to bare your soul. But when you write those stories with emotion, courage and warmth, readers will respond to you in positive ways. Writing to inspire others is one of the greatest gifts you can share with your readers.

Related Articles:
How to Make Your Writing Inspirational
Breaking Barriers: Inspiring Others, Julia Alvarez

Creating Stories with Child-like Wonder and Delight

Sing like you know the words, dance like no one’s watching, and love like it’s never going to hurt. — Unknown

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 Christmas always makes me feel like a kid again. It’s that time of year when I realize that I really am a kid at heart. I love the decorations, the music, the lights and especially the gift-giving.

It’s especially joyful when I watch children. I see their eyes grow wide with wonder and delight at each new experience, from sitting on Santa’s lap to seeing brightly wrapped presents under the tree. Everywhere they look, they see something fun and interesting to explore.

I call this “Christmas delight.”

Children experience the same delight through the things they create, whether it’s a drawing, a poem or a dance. They make things up as they go along, and they don’t worry about editorial guidelines and rules. They just do what they feel in their heart. They only know how to express themselves, to laugh, to have fun, to delight in their own creativity.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all experience this same wonder and delight with our writing?

A recent essay on Brevity’s Nonfiction blog got me thinking about our capacity as writers to delight in our own creativity. The author, L. Roger Owens, described his experience when he lost the joy of writing. Even as he struggled with writer’s block, he admired the unabashed joy his daughter expressed in her own creativity. She proudly read her stories out loud to a roomful of strangers. She spoke enthusiastically about plot points and character motivations. She delighted in her original turns of phrases. Things Owens wasn’t able to do with his own writing.

For Owens, repeated rejections and strict editorial guidelines squashed his creativity. A lack of interest in topics he was assigned to write about through his job killed his enthusiasm too.

Why are we able to experience this delight of creating as children, but lose it as adults?

Whatever we create as adults seems more open to scrutiny, not just our own, but that of editors, publishers and our peers. What we write seemed unique at first but now seems mundane and boring. Too many rejections and negative feedback weighs us down. We worry more about pleasing others than ourselves. All that negative input kills our enthusiasm, our joy.  

It may seem that the child-like wonder and delight for writing is lost forever. But it’s possible to reclaim it. Here’s how:

1. Pretend you are a child again. Do you remember how you felt when you finished writing a story? Did you take pride in your creation? View your writing as a child would. Children have no knowledge of editor’s rules or expert writing advice, so they are not worried about how people might react. They write for themselves, for the pure joy of creating. Perhaps we can learn from children to live in the moment and enjoy the process of creation.

2. Give yourself permission to fall in love with your work. It’s okay to appreciate turns of phrases, story ideas, plot lines, characters, and witty dialogue. So what that it may never be published, that it might land on the cutting room floor at your editor’s office. Even if you don’t use the material, keep it anyway. Create a file of writing that you review periodically to remind yourself that you are capable of writing enjoyable stories, even if they are never published.
 
3. Read your work out loud. It doesn’t have to be a large auditorium. Whether it’s an audience of one or ten, it doesn’t matter. Getting up to read your work takes courage and shows pride in your writing. When you read it out loud, even if it’s a first draft, you may find it isn’t nearly as bad as you think.

4. Don’t take your writing too seriously. Remember that writing is just one aspect of your life, not the only thing. “Writers are entertainers,” writes author Barbara O’Neal in Writer Unboxed blog. “We’re supposed to have fun. If you’re not, it’s probably time to find something else to do for a while.”

5. Allow yourself time to play. Take a break from writing and do something else, advises  O’Neal. Indulge in a favorite hobby, visit a museum, or go for a hike. Bring a small notebook with you and jot down any details you notice in your environment. As writers, we spend a lot of time closed off from the rest of the world. It’s important to get out as much as possible, engage with other people, commune with nature and the world at large. We need to give our brains a break from creating – and to give joy a chance to rise again.

6. Illustrate your story rather than write it. Put away your laptop or your notebook. Instead, take out a piece of paper and draw images to tell your story, writes Ben Soyka at the Writing Cooperative. Readers are more visual and enjoy having visual aids to go along with the stories they read, he explains. Besides, the illustration process forces you to develop new creative skills while you consider different ways to share your stories.

Losing the joy of writing is bound to happen at some point in your practice, especially when you put so much of yourself into it. Have faith that the child-like delight will return. And when it does, imagine how much joy you’ll bring to your readers.

Thank you for reading. Happy Holidays! Don’t forget to check out the weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

Novel Beginnings: Eight Tips for Writing a More Compelling Opening Chapter

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If you have ever read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, you probably remember this opening line:

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love, we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are.”

I’d be hard pressed to find any opening more poignant than this one. From the very start, readers are taken on an emotional journey that doesn’t end until the final sentence.

Writers are tasked with the challenge to create a similar experience with their readers. The start of any  novel should accomplish several things: create the tone of the story, provide the point of view, reveal character, and show tension and conflict, among other things. Certainly, the opening line from The Nightingale accomplishes most of these objectives. Does your story do the same?

Why is the opening so critical? Because if it doesn’t grab the reader’s interest and keep it for the first few pages, the reader will likely close the book and set it aside, never getting to the end of it. Ask any published author, editor or agent what makes a strong opening, and you’ll hear a number of answers, which are summarized below. And these suggestions don’t just pertain to fiction, but to short stories, memoir and non-fiction works too. Without a compelling start, readers will dismiss your effort.

If you are participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), it might be helpful to keep the following suggestions in mind as you write the opening of your novel.

1. Skip the prologue. There is ongoing debate about the merits of a prologue. Many editors and agents feel they aren’t necessary. I tend to agree with them. I’ve rarely read a prologue that made a difference in my understanding of the plot. The one exception is Caught by Harlan Coben, which provided sufficient background on one of the main characters to make you second guess the outcome. But if you plan your story well and write the opening pages right, there shouldn’t be a need for a prologue.

2. Create a protagonist that readers will care about. The opening is your opportunity to reveal your protagonist’s character. Is he/she rebellious, angry, ambitious or curious? In the above opening from The Nightingale, the character speaking is introspective and perhaps has gained wisdom from life experience. It makes me care about who she is and what else she (and it is a she, btw) might have to say.

3. Ground your reader in the story’s setting. According to the Write Practice blog, let readers see where the story takes place. Establish early on what the setting is for the story – the time period, the location, the season of the year, etc. When the reader feels grounded in the setting, they feel mentally prepared to experience the events as the characters do.

4. Create conflict and tension. Identify what the inciting incident is – that starting point to your story that changes the status quo. Where is the conflict? Is that conflict with another character, with a situation or within themselves? That conflict is needed to create tension, which helps draw readers in and keep them reading to see how the conflict is resolved.  

5. Don’t frontload with dialogue or action. According to Fuse Literary, too much action or dialogue can confuse readers. Sure, you want to start with some sort of action, but an opening chapter heavy on action and dialogue and not enough narrative or backstory can be confusing to readers who may need a point of reference to understand what is happening on the page. You need some action, of course, but balance it with some narrative so you don’t lose readers’ interest.

6. Don’t overload the opening with backstory either. According to recent Reedsy webinar, Crafting a Novel Opening, writers should focus on what the reader needs to know at that moment. There’s plenty of time to reveal backstory and world building as the story progresses, says Shaelin Bishop who led the discussion. Weave in backstory throughout the length of the manuscript, and allow details to breathe between scenes. This approach will help with the pacing too. If readers are overloaded with details up front, they may feel overwhelmed.

7. Hook the reader with an interesting twist. Start where the story gets interesting, which is usually at the point where there’s a change in the status quo. For example, the protagonist gets a letter with good news or bad news, a new person enters the protagonist’s life, or they get into an accident that alters the course of their life.  “Show what is interesting rather than focusing on the mundane. It’s okay to show less of the status quo than you think you need to,” says Shaelin Bishop with Reedsy. This approach avoids overloading your opening chapter with too many details that can bore your reader.

8. Every scene should serve several purposes. For example, one scene can establish the tone of the story, reveal something about the character and hint at future conflict. This sounds complex, but it’s necessary to keep the story moving forward and keep readers interested. Don’t waste your first sentence, or any sentence for that matter. Write every scene with a purpose in mind. If it doesn’t serve  purpose, and if a character doesn’t serve a purpose, cut them out.

To get into the habit of writing stronger openings, try these two exercises.

Exercise 1: Take 10 minutes and create as many opening sentences as you can think of. It could be for a current work in progress or any other story. Experiment with different perspectives. Here are a couple of examples of intriguing openings that made me keep reading:

“You would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous. I can tell you with certainty that such things exists ….”
The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman

“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”
Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

Exercise 2: Select five novels from your collection that you enjoyed reading. Go back and read the first page from each one. What made you turn the page? Why did it grab your interest? Did it reveal anything about the setting, tone or character? Did it create tension and conflict? What can you learn from these first pages that you can adapt to your own work?

Hope you find these tips and exercises helpful.  

12 Tips to Survive – and Thrive – National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Logo courtesy of NaNoWriMo

Have you always wanted to write a novel but wasn’t sure how to start writing it? Maybe you’ve had a story idea swirling inside your brain for the past decade and just never made the time to write it. With November right around the corner, here’s your chance.

National Novel Writing Month is an annual creative writing challenge that takes place every November in which participants aim to write 50,000 words in 30 days toward a completed novel. The event is hosted NaNoWriMo, a nonprofit organization that encourages writing fluency and education for all ages. According to its website, the NaNoWriMo group believes in “the transformational power of creativity.”

Participation in this annual event has escalated from a mere 21 people in 1999 to 306,230 in 2017, according to the Novel Factory. You don’t have to sign up on their website to participate. You can do this in the comfort of your home, which is what I plan to do. While the goal is 50,000 words for the entire month, that is only the goal. If you can only achieve 30,000 words – or 1,000 words a day – that’s fine too. This is a personal challenge to motivate writers to write every day and work toward a larger goal.

Whether this is the first time you take part in the event or the tenth, here are some helpful tips for surviving this 30-day writing challenge. You can find other helpful tips here too.

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Outline and research your story ahead of time. Since you’ll be spending your November days writing, you’ll need to know what you’ll be writing about. Plan ahead. Plot your outline in advance. The Novel Factory has some awesome free downloadable tools to help you plan your story.

The same goes for research. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research ahead of time. If you get to a place in your story where you need to do more research, make a note of what you need to do and come back to that place during the revision phase. Don’t get distracted by the desire to look up something or you will never get back to your writing.

Plan your schedule. With a hefty 50,000 word goal, you’ll need to plan how you will achieve it. That’s roughly 1,667 words a day with no days off, or 2,000 words a day with one day off each week. Those daily word goals can be daunting. So it’s important to plan how much you’ll be able to write. It might mean getting up an hour early each day to write, or doing mini sessions throughout the day. Remember, you don’t have to write in one huge chunk of time.

Try something new. Many writers use NaNoWriMo to experiment with their writing. It might be re-writing a current work-in-progress from an alternate point of view, or trying their hand at writing a different genre – science fiction when they normally write psychological suspense. This approach can be applied to your writing schedule too. For example, try getting up an hour earlier in the morning to start writing rather than waiting until the evening when you may be too tired.

Participate in live write-ins. If you’re looking to stay motivated throughout the month, check out a live write-in in your area. If you sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, you’ll be given locations of write-ins near you. With the pandemic, I imagine there might be virtual write-ins too. 

Work with a writing buddy. When you participate with a friend, you can motivate each other and help you through the rough spots. If you’re both competitive, set up your own contest to see who can write more words each day. Try putting a giant thermometer on your wall. As you complete your daily word count, fill in the thermometer with red to see your progress. Then compare your progress with that of your friend’s.

Be prepared to put some activities on the backburner. That may mean less time hanging out on social media, less time watching Netflix or Hulu or shutting off the TV. It could also mean spending less time socializing with your friends and fewer Zoom meetings. You’ll have to decide what you can live without for the short term while you work on your masterpiece.

Silence your inner critic/editor. As you write, turn off the internal critic who tells you that your work isn’t good. It’s easy to get sidetracked by negative thoughts. First drafts usually aren’t very good, so relax and just tell your story without judgment and self-criticism. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to challenge yourself to write your story. There will always be time for editing later.

Avoid going back to the beginning. If you are ever tempted to read what you’ve already written or rewrite it, don’t. You may decide that your work is terrible and give up. Or you may want to start editing it, which only wastes time. If necessary, read the last page or two that you wrote to remember where you left off, but otherwise, keep a forward focus.

Find your writing rhythm. You may find one week into NaNoWriMo that you’ve hit your stride. That’s great news. If you get to the end of your 2,000 word goal and you still feel motivated to keep going, then by all means, keep writing. That’s one way to build up your word count early on in the challenge so if you feel a bit sluggish by the end of the month, you can slow down without harming your end goal.

Reward yourself when you reach milestones. When you get to the 5,000 word mark, for example, treat yourself to your favorite snack or watch a favorite movie. Set another reward at 10,000 words, 20,000 words and so on. Occasional rewards serve as great motivational tools to keep you writing.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your writing goals. So you only wrote 30,000 words. Congratulate yourself for your accomplishment. That’s better than not writing at all. Remember the purpose of this event is to challenge yourself to make quick, steady progress.

Make time for exercise and fresh air. All work and no play can stifle your creativity. Make sure you get outside if the weather is nice, and go for a walk or a bike ride. It’ll help clear the cobwebs from your brain and you can return to your desk with a fresh perspective.

Most important, have fun with NaNoWriMo. Yes, there will be plenty of hard work involved, but stay positive. Look at how much you will learn and grow as a writer. No matter how many words you eventually put down on the page, you can be proud of your accomplishment as you see your story develop.

Haunt Your Readers with These Six Scary Elements of Suspense

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“How do you tell interesting stories? You puncture through reality and you let magic and weird stuff and ghosts bleed back through.”  Carmen Maria Machado

Imagine reading the following story:

A man has just finished washing dishes in his kitchen one night. As he is about to leave the sink, he notices a spider crawl up the drain into the sink. The man shakes his head in disbelief, then turns on the faucet to drown the spider. Seconds later, the spider returns, this time a little larger than before. The man can’t believe his eyes, even as he turns on the faucet again to push the spider back down the drain. The spider returns, larger than before. Each time, the man turns on the faucet to drawn the spider and each time, the spider crawls back up. The man’s eyes grow large, panicked at seeing the growing spider. He begins to sweat, fear overtakes him. Finally, the spider is so large, it has overtaken the man who screams in sheer horror at the beast. The viewer is left to wonder — did the spider kill the man — or did his fear of it kill him?

This was a vignette I saw many years ago on one of those horror TV shows that was popular back then, either The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery. Though I saw this episode several decades ago, that story haunts me today. Not that I’m scared of spiders – not really — but the story created a lasting impression. Why? It fed on the man’s fear and the viewer’s imagination. Logically, we know it’s not physically possible for a spider to grow so much so fast, yet we see it happen before our very eyes. The image of the ever growing spider leaves an indelible mark on our imaginations. We leave understanding what can happen when we let our fear overtake our common sense.

I believe that is the power and appeal of a truly scary story.

Writing scary stories – whether of ghostly hauntings, the paranormal, or brain-eating zombies – can be a challenge. While you must still follow the elements of writing a novel or short story, like plot structure, character arc and dialogue, but you have the task of creating scenes that send chills down your readers’ spines. Fortunately, there are ways to create that spine-tingling response.

1. Use your own fear. Horror goddess Shirley Jackson believes tapping into your deepest fear can make a good scary story. Just think about all the things that you were ever afraid of as a child, or fear now. Most people admit to being afraid of snakes or spiders. Other people may fear drowning, suffocation, or thunderstorms, dark spaces or the woods. Any of these things can be the basis for your scary story.

2. Get inside the narrator’s head. Author R.L. Stine likes writing his stories from first person point of view because it allows readers to view the action through the protagonist’s eyes. When the protagonist and her best friends explore an abandoned warehouse late at night, you see what she sees, hear what she hears and feels the fear like she does.     
                                                       
3. Create a good (hidden) monster. According to Dictionary.com, sometimes the best monsters aren’t creepy-looking at all, but someone who looks like you and me. It can be the boy next door, a teacher at school or the family pet. They seem innocent on the surface, but maybe they have some magic power or an evil streak that they hide. Even more compelling, the evil being never dies, no matter how often your protagonist tries to kill them – like the poor homeowner who tried to kill the spider. One of the creepiest ways to end a story is by hinting that the monster is still alive and well and prepared to kill again.

4. Write about your obsessions. Is there an experience you can’t quite forget? A relationship you can’t get over? A person who betrayed you long ago? We all have our obsessions, things we can’t let go of. We all have those dark places within us, where anger, jealousy and greed reside. Use those obsessive dark places to create your scary stories.

5. Make the story relevant to the reader. According to Dictionary.com, your story becomes scarier when readers can relate to the scene where the story takes place. A haunted house is nice, but maybe opt for a location your readers are more familiar with, such as a library, the public park or the local coffee shop. Add modern elements too, such as cell phones or social media. There’s nothing more terrifying than getting a threatening text message from a scary monster.

6. Take your ghostly, weird creations seriously. Not everyone will appreciate the scary beings you create, but that’s okay as long as you do. Ray Bradbury says the strangest, weirdest beings you create represent fear in some form. Further writers should be selective about whose criticisms they believe. Bradbury says, “I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

The scariest stories aren’t always about blood and gore. Sometimes a mere hint of something mysterious or creepy can be scary. Anything that draws on the reader’s personal fears and overactive imagination will scare the heck out of them.

Most important, embrace your inner monster. We all have it inside us. When you tap into your internal weirdness, magical and mysterious things can happen with your writing.  

15 Writing Prompts for Memoirs and Essays

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Our childhood is filled with events both big and small, and we carry those memories with us as we grow older. That’s why our childhood and early family life are fertile soil for story ideas for memoirs and personal essays.

Sometimes our minds can draw a blank when forced to come up with a story idea, however. Beyond the basic “I remember” prompt that I frequently talk about on my blog, there are other story starters to brainstorm potential ideas.

I found the following list in my collection of notes from webinars and workshops. I wanted to share them with you so you never run out of story ideas for your essay collection or memoir. Feel free to refer to this list often whenever you feel stuck.

Good luck!

1. Fears, big and small. Perhaps your biggest fear is spiders or snakes. Or maybe it’s drowning or flying in an airplane. When was the first time you noticed that fear and how has it dominated your life? Have you done anything to overcome that fear?

2. Secrets, big and small. What secrets, big or small, have you never told anyone?  Perhaps it’s the one night you spent in jail for disorderly conduct that a friend helped you get released. Or maybe the abortion you had when you were sixteen that you never told anyone about. We all have our reasons for keeping secrets. Explore why you’ve kept this secret for so long.

3. Embarrassing moments. What is your most embarrassing moment in front of strangers? It could be spilling a gallon of milk while waiting in a checkout line at the grocery store? Perhaps you openly belched after a scrumptious meal in an upscale restaurant? It could be anything that happened to you or to someone else, and it can take place anywhere. Whatever the event, don’t forget to describe how people reacted because that’s what makes those embarrassing moments worth writing about.

4. Physical features. What physical feature or body part do you obsess over? Is there a feature that you think is too big, too small, too crooked, too narrow, or too obscene to show in public? Explain why this feature makes you feel uncomfortable or inadequate.

5. Parents are people too. When did you realize that your parents were not perfect? That they could not always protect you when you needed to be protected. Or that there were times when they felt scared, angry, lonely or guilty – that they were (gasp!) human.

6. Name changes. Some people don’t like the name they were given at birth. If you could change your name, what would you change it to and why? This could pertain to your first name, your last name or your middle name – or all three. What’s in a name anyway? Do you think a name change would alter your personality or your outlook on the world?

7. Family pets. Did you have a family pet? If so what are some of your favorite memories of that pet? Perhaps you had, like my family did, a series of unusual pets – hamsters, baby chicks, a baby alligator (I think my brother named him Sidney) and goldfish that died within three days. When you think of your favorite pet stories, think “Marley & Me.”

8. Families and food. When we think of family gatherings, we also tend to think of the meals we shared. What role did food have in your family life? Did you enjoy outdoor barbecues and abundant celebrations? Or was it just the opposite – your family struggled to put food on the table? How has food defined your childhood, and have those attitudes carried over into your adult life?

9. Family road trips. What is the most unusual place you and your family visited together? Perhaps you remember going camping for the first time, or learning to ski in Colorado. Have you ever seen the ocean or the mountains? Describe your most memorable vacations and explain why they were so memorable.

10. Family vehicles. Do you remember the car your parents drove when you were a child? Or do you recall the first car you ever owned? What did that car mean to you?

11. Favorite mementos. Is there one possession you have that brings back memories? It could be a piece of jewelry that you received from your grandmother, or a Christmas ornament that’s been handed down several generations. When you see that item, what memories does it conjure up for you?

12. Job hopping. What was the most unique job(s) you ever had? What about your parents or siblings – did they hold any unusual jobs? What work did they do? What did they learn from their experience? For example, when I was born, my father worked as a milkman, delivering milk to households. It was a dying career, however, and my father was soon forced to find other work. Think about family attitudes toward work and earning a living.

13. Hidden quirks and happy habits. Family members all have their hidden quirks and habits – a sister who talks in her sleep, a grandfather who collects antique instruments, or a mother who dances the Irish jig every night after the dinner plates are cleaned and put away. Do you have any family members with hidden quirks, habits or special talents?

14. Musical interludes. What kind of music did your parents listen to when you were growing up? Did you learn to play a musical instrument? I remember growing up with a jukebox in our basement that arrived for my sister’s sixteenth birthday party. I listened to records on that jukebox for hours. These days I have a playlist on my iPod that contains many of those records I listened to long ago. How did your family’s musical tastes influence your own? What role did music play in your family life?

15. The writing life. What events from your childhood influenced you to start writing? Did you win a writing contest, or perhaps you were always good in English and spelling? Was there someone who encouraged you to be a writer – or tried to persuade you not to be one? How did you develop your love of writing? Where did it come from?

There’s plenty of inspiration for your personal essays or memoir. You just have to be willing to go back in time to find them.

How Well Do You Manage Your Emotions When You Write?

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Several years ago when I faced an emotional and financial crisis, I took to journaling almost every day to deal with the pain and anxiety I felt. The emotional pain was so intense, in fact, that it took two notebooks of journal entries to release those emotions. I just kept writing and writing to release the anger, fear and guilt I felt until I had my emotions under control. Writing in my journal was much better than pacing floors and indulging in crying spells.

Psychologists at the Harvard University Healthbeat blog call this expressive writing. They cited several studies showing how expressive writing (journal writing) can help you manage stress and anxiety by organizing your thoughts and making sense of traumatic experiences. Expressive writing can also help you break free of the endless mental cycling through of events that can lead to brooding and depression.

So why am I writing about this? With so much going on in our world, many people begin writing to deal with their often confused emotions to make sense of things. For many, writing helps heal wounds both old and new. At a time like now, expressive writing, or different variations of it, can help you deal with the emotional aspects of these dramatic events.

Writers learn to write with emotion, to use it to fuel their stories. But how do you write when you feel too overwhelmed by life-altering events, when you feel too emotional to write? How do you express your emotions without being overwhelmed by them? How do you put those emotional experiences into proper perspective?

Here are a few writing tools to help you navigate those rocky seas of emotion.

1. Journaling – Therapists at the University of Rochester Medical Center say that journaling is one of the easiest ways to release your emotions, next to talking to a close friend or family member. That’s where expressive writing comes in. The idea behind journaling, or expressive writing, is to set aside time every day to write in a journal or notebook for a specified amount of time, say thirty minutes or so. (However, in my personal experience, if you’re feeling really emotional about a situation, you might consider writing for longer than that, or at least until you have nothing left to put on the page.) Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or sentence structure, and don’t show your journal to anyone. Journaling is your personal path to healing.

2. Freewriting – Freewriting is like a stream of consciousness on the page. You don’t stop to edit yourself either, much like journaling. While expressive writing helps you deal with the emotional content, like a dumping ground of sorts, freewriting is the flow of thoughts and ideas. Journaling is more personal, while freewriting is less emotional. But because of the assortment of ideas, freewriting helps you sort through them to find nuggets of wisdom. I also recommend handwriting for both journalizing and freewriting because writing by hand creates a direct connection to your subconscious mind.

3. Letter writing — Another exercise I used to get through my emotional crisis was letter writing. Write a letter to that person (or organization) who you feel angry with (or disappointed, saddened, frustrated, etc.). Describe your rage or fears, and most important, explain what you would like them to do in response. Be specific in your request. Most important, don’t mail the letter. Instead, tear it up or burn it. Release the contents into the Universe. You never ever want to mail a letter to someone that you wrote in anger. You might regret it later. Write as many letters as you see fit until your emotions are under control. It really does make you feel better to get things off your chest, even if you never mail the letter.

4. Write about your experience in third person. This suggestion comes from a therapist at Psych Central, who explains that writing in third person (he/she/they) creates distance between yourself and the traumatic event. When it’s less personal, the traumatic experience is easier to deal with.

5. Do nothing. Yes, you read that right. Do nothing – at least for right now. Be careful not to respond to a volatile situation with a kneejerk reaction. What you write in the heat of the moment may not be what you really want to say. Allow time for your emotional self to cool off. It could be a few days, a week or a month or more. When you wait for the drama to subside, what you want to write about will eventually become clear.

The turmoil in the world has created a lot of emotional noise. You don’t want your voice to get lost in it. Take a step back (or two or three) from the drama, allow some time to pass, then you’ll be able to look upon that situation with greater clarity. Writing can help by giving you an outlet for those pent up feelings.

With life in topsy-turvy mode these past few months, writing solely for yourself can bring balance back into your life.

Are You Being Truly Authentic in Your Writing?

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Webster’s dictionary defines authentic as “genuine” or “real.” But what does it mean to be genuine or real in your own writing?

Writing authentically means revealing a little bit about yourself through your writing. You provide a glimpse of your daily life so others can see that you are not some robot but a real person with real feelings and real experiences of the world. Your readers are looking for a reason to connect with you. They want to see your humanness. Being a responsible, authentic writer means opening yourself up to them.

I’m not talking about an online diary or a log of everything you ate for breakfast this morning. I’m talking about human emotion and experiences, which readers can relate to.

Writing with an authentic voice is the key to being a successful writer, says writer and blogger James Prescott, who eloquently describes his own experience about losing his authentic self at the Publishous blog. When Prescott focused on external ego-centric factors like publishing deals and how many followers he had, he said he easily lost sight of what was truly important about writing: connecting with readers.

Your readers aren’t interested in those ego-centric things about you. What they do want to know is how you overcome writing blocks, how you found your first writing gig, how you brainstorm story ideas. Because these are issues they deal with every day. These are problems they want to solve. They want to see that you are just like them, a writer who struggles with motivation and inspiration and time management, even as you build your success.

Writing authentically is about knowing what your audience wants to know, not what you want for yourself. For example, you might begin a blog post by telling readers about a writing class you attended recently and what you learned from it. Not only do you share your knowledge, you put up a mirror of sorts so they can see themselves through you. Sharing your personal stories helps you connect with your readers.

Readers are on your side. They want you to succeed in your writing. They want to read stories that are honest and truthful and speaks to their heart. They seek authenticity from the writers they read and follow in social media, so it’s up to you and me, as writers, to give them what they want.

Here are a few ways that you can bring more authenticity to your writing.

  • Turn off the negative internal voice. You know the one that tells you that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have a right to share your knowledge with others, that writing is a big waste of time. You get the idea. Find a way to shut out that negative internal voice. Better yet, shout back at them. “Yes, I am good enough. Yes, I enjoy writing so it’s not a waste of time.”

  • Stop worrying about being perfect. Just focus on your message. What do you want to say to your readers? When you focus on your message, the right words will come naturally.

  • Watch for performance anxiety. Putting words down on the page is a lot like standing on a stage to perform for an audience, but you don’t have a script and you have to fly by the seat of your pants. Not knowing what to say to a room full of strangers can cause anxiety for even the most practiced public speakers. If you feel performance anxiety just by staring at a blank page, again focus on your key message(s). The words will come.

  • Feel the fear and write about it anyway. Human emotions are the one thing that connects us all. We all feel fear. We all know what it’s like to feel our knees go weak, our hands tremble, and our heart beat wildly inside our chest. Write about those things. Those experiences will help you connect to your readers.

  • Learn to meditate. Meditating helps you quiet your mind and slows your breath to an easy rhythm. When your thoughts slow down, you can observe your inner world more clearly. You can observe the way you think and the way you feel. When you slow down, new thoughts arise, thoughts you never knew you had. Meditating helps you reconnect to your true self, and when you connect to your true self, you discover your personal truths. When you are in tuned with those truths, you are more likely to share them with conviction.

Don’t be afraid to share what you learn about yourself. It’s scary, of course, but that’s what makes it real. That’s what make you human. That’s what makes you authentic. And your writing will improve because of it.

What about you? How do you bring authenticity into your writing?

For more about authenticity in writing, check out these links:
Why Authenticity as a Writer and Blogger Is Crucial to Success
Writing with Authenticity

Tired of Staring at a Blank Page? Begin Writing with a Story Starter

blank paper with pen and coffee cup on wood table
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Staring at a blank page is one of the scariest experiences for a writer, no matter how much experience they have. It’s one of the most common objections people have about starting a regular writing practice. “I don’t know what to write about!” they cry.

Story starters can help you fill that blank page. Story starters are word games and activities to help you generate story ideas. Not only are they great at helping you flex your creative muscles but they can also prompt you to look at events in your life in unexpected ways. Most important, story starters can help you stay motivated whenever you feel stuck or want to take a break from your current work-in-progress.

So the next time you find yourself staring at a blank page, try one of these starter activities to help you fill that page with prose.

1. Writing prompts. Perhaps the most popular story starter is the writing prompt. As the term says, a writing prompt poses questions or fill-in-the-blank statements to stir your imagination. For example, “Whenever it rains, I like to…..” Or “If you won the lottery, what would you do with your winnings?” There are entire books devoted to writing prompts or you can find them on sites like Writer’s Digest, StoryaDay.org and Self-Publishing.com. Or you can revisit my previous post about writing prompts here.

2. Word lists and associations. This technique was popularized by author Ray Bradbury who often used it to brainstorm story ideas whenever he felt stuck. First thing in the morning, Bradbury would jot down whatever words came to mind. Then he’d look at whatever connections they made to each other, or in some cases, how they prompted a memory. By combining some of the word associations, he was able to form the basis for a story.

3. Dreams. If you are an active dreamer, I hope you keep a notebook at your bedside to jot them down. That way you can remember them later. The longer you wait to write it down, the more likely you will forget important details. Dreams have a way of revealing issues we’re dealing with in our lives, sometimes when we don’t realize we’re experiencing them. Maybe you felt yourself falling helplessly in a dream, or you were being chased by an unknown being. Try to capture that scene as well as your emotional response. You never know when dreams can serve as the premise for a story or a scene in a larger work.

4. Visuals, such as artwork or photographs. Is there a painting, sculpture or photograph that moves you or inspires you? What do you see in that image? Each piece of work conveys different meanings to different people, so what you see in a painting will differ from what your friend sees. The next time you see a visual that moves you, try to write a story about that image or about the artist. What do you think inspired them to create this piece?

5. Maps. Lay out a world map on your desk, or find a globe. Then close your eyes and let your finger drop down to a place on the map or the globe. Wherever it lands is the backdrop for your next story. Imagine what it’s like to travel there, or create a character who is from that region. Maps can guide you to a story set in faraway places.

6. The news. You can’t escape what is happening in the news these days. Current events and TV news programs are filled with interviews with experts, personal profiles and events. They can look at one story from different angles. Perhaps someone in the news provides inspiration for a character in your latest short story, or a news feature can spark fresh story lines you might not have considered.

7. First line game. Think of a first line of a story, then keep writing to see where the story takes you. Or for an added challenge, find a first line from any novel you choose, then create your own different story from that first line.

8. Dictionary word game. For this activity, all you need is every writer’s best friend – the dictionary. Open the book to any page, close your eyes, then with your finger point to a word on that page. Then open your eyes and see what word your finger fell on. Does that word conjure any images in your head? If that word doesn’t work, scroll up and down the page for another word that strikes your fancy. The important thing to remember is that the word should somehow resonate with you, conjure up images that have meaning to you. For example, perhaps the word you settle on is “cantankerous”. What image comes to mind? Perhaps it’s the image of an elderly uncle whose gruff manner frightened you as a child?

9. Favorite object. Do you have a favorite object that has special meaning to you? Perhaps it’s a piece of jewelry you own, a book you’ve read, or an ornament you picked up on your travels. Perhaps you owned something that is missing or broken. Describe the object and explain why it meant so much to you.

10. Observations. Look around you and describe what you see. It could be a cat sleeping on your desk while you work. It could be a person you see on the street who started digging around a nearby dumpster looking for food, or a doorman in front of an apartment building who smiles and says hello to everyone walking by. Just jot down what you see, what they are wearing, what they are doing. Simply observing the world around you can spark a scene or short story.

With so many story starters to work with, you won’t have to search hard for stories.