Beginnings

Undoing Clichés & The Ant Who Wanted to See the Moon

By Your Salonniere

The first exercise borrowed from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Penguin’s Academic Series. We called this exercise, “Undoing a Cliché” where we listed as many clichés and over-used trite sayings as we could think of. Then we switched up the beginnings and endings, so we could take risks in our voice and startle our readers.

The students came up with startling images such as:

my feet are sicker than a dog

busy as a dog

busy as cats and dogs

Finally we ended with the an original prompt:

The Ant Who Wants to See the Moon Exercise #2

If you were a <FILL IN THE BLANK FROM THE BELOW> what kind would you be?

1.ice cream flavor: ____________________________________________
2. furniture: ____________________________________________
3. time of day: ____________________________________________
4. animal: ____________________________________________
5. sea creature: ____________________________________________
6. article of clothing: ____________________________________________
7. plant or tree: ____________________________________________
8. kitchen item: ____________________________________________
9. body of water: ____________________________________________
10. architectural structure: ____________________________________________
11. fruit or vegetable: ____________________________________________
12. book: ____________________________________________
13. game: ____________________________________________

Now choose one, circle it, and anthropomorphize or personify it. For example, if you chose a book, think of your book title as a real paperback copy and write from the point of view of that book: where has it been? Where did it come from, library, bookstore, or Amazon, etc? Who’s hands has it been in? What kind of reader does the book like? What kind of reader is the book afraid of and why? Describe a day in the life of that paperback book? Where does it live? Who does it see? What would it like to do that it can’t? What is the book’s one heart’s desire? What is the book’s greatest fear and why? Put your book in a scenario where the greatest fear or desire is at stake. Be sure to use all seven senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound, balance, time) and to depict time, place, setting, other characters, appearance, weather, year, day of the week, hour, etc. In essence, tell a story about your chosen subject!

***

Chapter Openings

In Little Debauches on July 29, 2010 at 8:48 am

Objects + Conflicts = Story

Think of chapters as a chain reaction. The first mover doesn’t have to be revealed until the very last paragraph of the book, but writers should know who or what set the initial action in motion. Each chapter is a response to a preceding quake, which sets off more tremors in the chapters that follow. Pinpoint the epicenter, understand the magnitude of the shaking that ensues, follow the internal and external reactions, staying mindful of the ripple effects that rock each character and subplot. Make use  of key object(s), which reveal characters. Highlight setting to drive narrative and make meaning. Know the instigators of each storyline, and exploit them as elemental building blocks to further the narrative.

Be sure to determine the following as you begin each chapter:

1. OBJECTS- What artifacts are key in the scene?
2. IMMEDIATE AND PHYSICAL NEED- What are the urgent needs of each character: a glass of water, a one-way ticket out of town, or a phone call to a loved one?
3. SETTING- DETAILS!!
4. PLOT CONFLICT- What is the over-arching need of each character?
5. HOW ARE EACH OF THE CHARACTERS NEEDS AND WANTS CONFLICTED IN OPPOSITION TO EACH OTHER?

As you plot each chapter, determine how many scenes and settings you need to cover in each section. Be aware of other characters who may not appear in a particular chapter but who will be affected by the actions and developments that take place. Be sure to distinctly decide on imagery for the beginning and ending of each chapter, which will can pin the skeletal frame of each scene in your chapter.

To keep your story-telling fresh, paint the first scene of each chapter with a new stroke each time:

  • Historical fact
  • Color
  • Action by Stranger, supporting/main character
  • Flashback of main/supporting character, or passerby
  • Personality Trait, Tic, or Habit of main/supporting character or passerby
  • Physical Trait, Mannerism, Gesture of main/supporting character or passerby
  • Mishap or Accident
  • Weather
  • Time
  • Place
  • History of Setting
  • Food
  • Preparation of Food
  • Daily Ablution
  • Object/Article, hated or loved by main/supporting character or passersby
  • Animals
  • Painting or Sculpture
  • Music
  • Nature
  • Scientific Tidbit
  • Sound
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Balance
  • Touch
  • Psychic Connection
  • Technology
  • Agriculture
  • Botany
  • Chemistry
  • Political Fact
  • Cultural Background
  • Feminist Perspective
  • Classical Allusion
  • Pop Culture Allusion
  • Epistle
  • Folktale
  • Myth
  • Lie
  • Joke or Anecdote
  • Snippet of Dialogue
  • Radio, Television, Newspaper, or Magazine Ad
  • Obituary
  • Editorial Column
  • Newspaper Article
  • Tweet
  • Instant Message
  • Voicemail Message
  • Label on Cereal Box, Pill Bottle, Cleaning Product, or another grocery item
  • Poem
  • Novel or Book Excerpt
  • Song Lyric
  • Billboard
  • Recipe
  • Directions and Instructions
  • Street Sign
  • Store Front or Store Sign
  • Bus Ad
  • Photo
  • Photo Album
  • On the Road
  • On the Sidewalk

***

Five Fingers in a Slap to the Face

Begin at the beginning. Every short story and novel needs to establish in the first few sentences, or first paragraph, five specific essentials. Character, conflict, tone, theme, and leit motif, should slap the readers in the face upon first read.

Taste:

Where the Long Grass Bends by Neela Vaswani, Sarabande Books, 2004. (Short story collection)

“Five Objects in Queens”

White Nova. Circa 1979. Astoria, Queens.
They used the backseat for misdemeanors. The eldest, Rita, smoked cigarettes there and hid lipstick under the floor mat. Rita’s little sister, Priyanka, rolled up the windows, stretched out on the cushy, red leather (smelling of rotten French Fries and incense), and attempted to sing like Aretha Franklin. Their grandmother, Dado, surreptitously chucked her insulin in the neighbor’s trashcan and hunkered to eat half a Ring Ding and Ayuervedic tablets.

Digest:

The first sentence opens with indiscriminate subjects, our main characters, plural, trio in crime and piques interest with straightforward reference to minor infractions. We dive deeper with specificity, five objects, and get more details than the title bargained for: cigarettes, lipstick, Rita, Priyanka, red leather, Aretha Franklin, French fries, Dado, insulin, Ring Ding and Ayuervedic tablets. Each detail gives us specific insight into character. They’re carefully chosen and paint a vivid scene. Each detail contrasts against the next one, so we have cultures and ideals clashing and clanging against each other. All five senses are evoked. We smell incense and fries, taste Ring Dings, see red, twice, hear Aretha, feel cushy leather and sense three people crammed into the back of the car. The conflict is direct. They’re each doing something forbidden, on a joyride of sin–and this is just the beginning of the story! Vaswani’s  five, strong fingers certainly smack readers in the face, proving, as most brilliant writing affirms, how good it feels to be so bad.

Exercise:
Pick five (or more) concrete details and create a scene where each detail scaffolds to build character, shapes meaning, and leads to direct conflict. Use active verbs. Be as concrete and specific as possible.  If you have an introduction to a novel or short story you’re working on, check to ensure you fully immerse your readers in scene. The beginning of a short story is no time for flowery or abstract ideas. The reader should be able to put their finger on hard, specific objects. Make every word, phrase, and image tactile by evoking all six senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, sound, and, yes, psychic travel. The sixth sense is where you and your reader can have a little fun. Try forecasting to the future, what’s about to happen that will heighten conflict? Or what just happened before, in the distant, or not so distant past, that lends tension to this introductory moment. If you can tie the sixth sense to a concrete detail that leads to the central conflict of the story that’s more mileage for your writing. Vaswani’s tell tale clues of the cigarettes and lipstick lets us in on racy, past violations and complicate Priyanka, deliciously. Grandma’s Ayurvedic tablets and insulin build the tension of sickness and give heft to what could otherwise be a wickedly casual day out.

The Salonniere  invites you to post your exercise below. Be sure to include a short paragraph afterward that summarizes and explains your process, what you’re trying to achieve, what you struggled with, what was successful, and, of course,  any questions you may have. The parlour is open!

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