Monthly Archives: January 2018

Story Ideas: How to Beat Shiny-New-Idea Syndrome and Actually Finish Your Projects

Authors often get asked where they get their story ideas. It’s one of the most common questions my student writers wish they could ask their writing heroes. They think, “If I could just find a way to come up with the next best-selling story idea like [insert famous author], then I’ll make it as a writer!”

But they misunderstand one critical truth: the magic isn’t in the ideas. It’s in the execution.

We need the ideas to get started, but many writers don’t have a system for capturing the ideas around them daily, and they don’t develop ideas consistently in practice.

We all have files full of unfinished projects and story ideas spread across notebooks and online platforms. Why do ideas lose their luster the moment we start writing them?

The Problem with Chasing Story Ideas

I had a student who was a few days away from his deadline for his final fiction project and he came to see me.

“I found a better idea and want to change my project,” he said.

“How much have you written on this new idea?” I asked.

“Well, you see, it’s about this guy …”

I interrupted him. “No, how much have you written on it. How many words?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “None, yet.”

I shook my head. “Write it down in a sentence in your journal, and finish the original project first.”

He sputtered a bit about how great this new story idea was compared to the thousands of words he’d written on his current project.

I had to give him the talk I give many students and myself when we feel stuck and get caught up chasing a new shiny idea instead of getting in the chair and grinding out the work.

“Ideas are nothing until you execute them. Your desire to chase something else is resistance. You are close to finishing the longest piece of fiction you’ve ever written. Finish it.

“The idea will still be there. You’re afraid the current work won’t be as good as it seemed in your head, when it was a shiny new idea like the one you’re courting now.

“But the magic isn’t in the idea. It’s in the way you execute it, which means you need a first draft. Then we’ll revise it into the work you want it to be.”

It wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear, but he ultimately finished the original project.

A System for Managing Story Ideas

A system can minimize shiny-new-idea syndrome, because you will have a plan for what to do when a new idea appears in the midst of your current project.

I always have a notebook with me, but sometimes I capture story ideas online. I used to bookmark interesting articles, until I had so many stored that I never looked at them. Since then, I’ve transitioned online links to Evernote with tags to easily search my ideas.

I know writers who love to use Pinterest to keep character boards, settings, and history research in a visually organized way. Others love spreadsheets. Some keep idea boards in their writing spaces.

Find the method that you are most likely to use, and it will save you time as you collect and use your ideas. Then, when you are in the middle of trying to finish a project, you know exactly where to put that idea that keeps interrupting your work.

Revisiting Notebooks for Idea-Mining

Whether you keep your ideas on paper or online, build time into your writing year to revisit your stash.

I used to dump all my notebooks in a jumble in a big bin when they were finished. Now, I put dates on the bindings and keep them in two boxes in my huge bin. Each summer, I make time to scan through the notebooks in one of the boxes, pulling one or two notebooks that have especially promising ideas to develop. Sometimes I just read through them and put them all back.

Online, I tag story ideas in Evernote by genre or fiction element (character, setting, conflict, interesting problem, etc.). When I’m looking for a fresh story idea, I can open Evernote and scan through a tag’s contents quickly.

The Most Important Step

As I shared with my student who was chasing a new idea, the most important thing to do is simply pick an idea and follow it through to completion, one idea at a time, over and over again. A system can minimize those distractions, because you can tell your inner squirrel that the idea is safely lodged in your notebook and will be revisited when it’s time.

Of course there may be times when abandoning a project is necessary, but don’t let your reason be “Oooo, look at this shiny new idea!”

Where do you like to record your story ideas? Share in the comments.

By Sue Weems

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Encouraging Words for Writers: 3 Essential Reminders for Struggling Writers

There are a lot of things that stop us from writing. Fear of failure, discouragement, and exhaustion are my big three. Sometimes, what we need to push through those barriers is a reminder of who we are and why we do what we do. We need someone to come alongside us and speak encouraging words for writers.

We need to be told again the stories that have led us to the place we are now.

3 Encouraging Reminders for Writers

On the wall of my office, I have a collage of quotes and pictures that have inspired me. Each quote represents a story from my past. I read over them whenever I need a boost of encouragement (which is at least once a day).

These encouraging words for writers are a wonderful source of strength for me. Many of the quotes on the wall are from friends and family who had the right words for me at the exact right time.

Here are three I lean on regularly to get me through rough patches.

1. “Work the process.”

My mentor said this to me at a moment when I was completely lost.

Things at work were falling apart. Several projects had started to break down at the same time, another staff member had verbally attacked me in a staff meeting, and I was being accused of something I didn’t do. On top of that, the organization I worked for was in financial trouble and I wasn’t sure we were going to turn things around.

I called my mentor to ask for help because I had no idea what to do next. We sat in an empty hallway in the basement of the building. It was late and everyone had gone home. Leaning against the painted cinderblock wall, I explained to him in detail everything that was going wrong and all the extravagant plans and drastic measures I had designed in my head that would turn things around.

After hearing me out, he said, “Work the process.” I asked him to explain.

“Don’t do anything extravagant. Don’t take drastic action. There are processes in place. Work the process.”

Often as a writer, I work myself into a dark place. I begin to feel like my writing is worthless. I grow discouraged and lose focus. I find a thousand things to do instead of writing the next chapter.

When I get in that head space, I remind myself to “work the process.”

There is a process to my writing. I write after my family has gone to sleep. I sit at my kitchen table with my laptop, a drink, and a notepad, I skim the last chapter I wrote, I look at my outline, and then I write the next chapter.

When life is hard and I don’t feel like writing, the process keeps me focused and moving in the right direction.

It’s not extravagant. It’s not drastic. It is mundane and routine; and when things get hard, that’s exactly what we need.

2. “No one is going to die on the table.”

I wasn’t prepared for the pre-med course load I took on my sophomore year of college.

My freshman year, I’d been a music major. Since the classes were mostly about performing, I’d been able to wing it with a minimal amount of preparation. Instead of working hard in the practice rooms each day, I learned to play racquetball and became a regular on the basketball court.

Predictably, my disdain for practice made it clear to me and my teachers that I wasn’t going to cut it as a musician, so I decided to pursue one of my other interests, science. While I loved the classes, I was not prepared for the amount of studying that was required.

By the time I got to my midterms, I was way behind in multiple classes.

The night before three tests, a group of friends who were in class with me came over to study. We blew through our biology and chemistry notes in our first three hours together and I felt good about my prospects in the morning.

A little before midnight, we began studying for physics. I hated physics. Sitting at my small round kitchen table, my friends rattled off formulas, made up problems for one another, and answered practice questions with ease. I, on the other hand, was completely lost.

After an hour and a half of trying to “get it,” I excused myself from the study session, claiming I needed to get something from my bedroom. Hiding in my closet so no one could hear me, I began to cry. I called my dad and explained through tears what was happening. I was sure I was going to fail the test and it was too late for me to do anything about it.

After calming me down, he said several things to me that night that have stayed with me. One of which was, “Listen, if you fail tomorrow, no one is going to die on the table.”

Dad was a surgeon who primarily saw high-risk patients. When someone got to him, it was life-or-death. If he messed up or came to work unprepared, someone might literally die on the table.

The words he gave me that night were a fantastic reality check that I’ve used again and again. They’ve helped me take risks and push through fear. When my fear of failure begins to slow me down, I remember sitting in my closet and getting a good dose of perspective from my dad.

Through the years, fear has stayed with me. It is the greatest enemy of writing. Many nights I will sit down to write a chapter and hear fear in my ear whispering, “You’ve got nothing. You’re not a real writer. Stop kidding yourself. You’re going to fail.”

When that voice comes around, I remind myself of the stakes. If I write a terrible chapter, no one is going to die on the table. I’ll just erase it and try again tomorrow.

Having a refreshed perspective helps me move through fear and write.

3. “The tension is good.”

It was after midnight. My friend and I were alone on the second floor of a bar. On the table in front of us were stacks of meeting notes and ideas we’d sketched out together over the years. We were drinking coffee, talking about a non-profit we were both serving, and dreaming up ways to solve all the organization’s problems.

There were some amazing things happening in the organization. We were seeing real breakthroughs in the community we served and people were being helped.

At the same time, we could feel the organization hadn’t reached its full potential. We knew what it could be, but we weren’t sure how to get it there.

We thought that maybe, if we tweaked this one process, or increased our effort in this one area, or redirected resources to this other direction that we would see a breakthrough.

Caught in the tension between the good we were doing and the good we wanted to do, I began to complain. I whined about wanting the future to arrive already, and how I didn’t want to have to wait for changes to take hold.

After I finished another pointless rant, I remember my friend smiling at me and saying, “Don’t rush it. The tension is good.”

He was right. If we had made the changes right away that I wanted to make, we would have failed. Things that looked like a good idea at that moment were actually terrible ideas. Moving slow and making careful and strategic changes helped us see different paths and solutions that weren’t immediately apparent.

As a writer, I often find myself with a problem I can’t fix easily. For me, it usually has to do with plot. I’ll work myself into a hole in my story that I can’t get out of.

Weighed down by exhaustion, my gut tells me to just ignore it, hope readers won’t notice, and rush to the end. I tell myself, “Just publish it and move to the next one.”

Unfortunately, I’ve learned the hard way that readers always notice.

The phrase “the tension is good” has served over and over again to remind me that some problems need to sit. They can’t be solved right away. Instead, they need to be thought through because marinating in the tension will produce a better result.

Encouragement for the Journey

Those are three of the memories that bring me inspiration and encouragement. When I’m stumped in my writing, overwhelmed, afraid, or all three at once, these encouraging words for writers remind me that I will make my way through.

No, my writing isn’t perfect. But the process works. No one is going to die on the table. And the tension is good.

When you hit a rough patch, what encouraging words for writers do you lean on? Let us know in the comments.

By Jeff Elkins

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Healing From Shame: How to Overcome the Insidious Cause of Writer’s Block

Every time we sit down to write, our mood and state of mind affect our words. We infuse, to some extent, everything we write with our unique “voice.” Our emotions come through on the page.

When we’re struggling to eke out even a few words and make sense of our writing, it shows in our work. Our characters are flat. Our scenes are dull and passive. Our plot is thin and weak. Nothing we try fixes the problems. Or, maybe words don’t come at all.

We may declare that we have a case of writer’s block, particularly if we’ve wrestled with the vexation for weeks or months. But, there may be a stronger and more insidious obstacle: shame.

What Is Shame?

The kind of shame that can affect your writing is invasive, corrosive, powerful, and debilitating.

Shame is beyond embarrassment and sadness, although both may be present. It’s beyond writer’s doubt. It tells us we are defective and unworthy of joy, happiness, and reaching our goals. It’s the gnawing feeling in our solar plexus that we’re not okay, and anything we do is not okay. We feel as though we are a mistake rather than acknowledging that we made a mistake.

Shame can exacerbate or bring on depression and anxiety. I have lived with depression and anxiety my whole adult life, and I realize they can render me emotionally raw or destitute. These conditions magnify and intensify when I’m wrestling with my imagination. Combined, they mix a recipe that can shut me down for days.

Writers and Shame

When we feel helpless and vulnerable, our writing can take on a tentative and cautious tone. We may be afraid to write with honesty, thinking we’re too exposed or that our writing could harm others. That struggle to write can feel like writer’s block.

We don’t lack imagination. Rather, we lack self-compassion that allows our imagination to shine through.

Having self-empathy helps us see ourselves as we truly are and acknowledge that everyone is imperfect and makes mistakes.

Conversely, we may say on the page what we can’t openly verbalize. Creative writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, can provide an outlet for pent-up emotions. Passion-charged words act as release valves for the writer and have a ring of authenticity and strength.

But, we must take care not to get stuck in an emotion which then drives all our writing.

Perhaps every scene is punctuated with anger, frustration, sadness, or desperation. Even tender, nurturing, quiet scenes somehow sound angry. Or, maybe, every scene sounds flat and emotionless because we’re avoiding confrontation with strong emotions within us.

It may be time to check our emotional state. This goes deeper than simple writer’s block. We can’t manage what we don’t know exists.

What Can We Do About Shame?

There are four powerful strategies for addressing shame.

1. Take steps to recognize shame

We first must acknowledge that the presence of shame is a possibility. We recognize the shame by looking at painful experiences in our lives, how we’ve coped with them, and the ways they continue to affect us.

Shame can show up in our lives as overeating, sleeplessness, outbursts, smoking, drinking too much, or using illicit drugs.

It may shut us down, or we may become super busy as we attempt to mask painful feelings.

It may wreak havoc on our relationships.

By bringing shame to the forefront, we can begin to deal with it.

2. Realize you are okay

Second, accept that there’s nothing wrong with you.

If you experienced an act perpetrated against you, know that you’re not at fault. You are dealing with the aftermath of emotional devastation.

Most of our life experiences are beyond our control.

Distraction activities may make us feel worse than before we engaged in them.

If you acted in a way that harmed someone else, know that you did the best you could at the time and try to find a way onto the path of self-forgiveness. Beating ourselves up compounds the pain. You may have to contend with the consequences of your actions, but you now can view the episode from the vantage point of humility.

It’s crucial that you know, really accept, that you are a precious, worthy human being.

3. Talk about it

Third, enlist the intervention of a professional or a trusted, supportive, nurturing person — psychologist, counselor, mental health therapist, minister, rabbi, priest, spiritual director, or trusted friend or relative. We must confront the shame in a process that works for us, but we don’t have to do it alone. Check resources in your community for the type of counseling you need.

I regularly meet with a psychologist to sort through the pain of trauma and the resultant emotions. I have, in the past, consulted with a spiritual director as well. They help me gain clarity and a sense of empowerment. They act as mirrors for me and see what I can’t — I’m too close to my own stuff.

4. Write about it

Fourth, writing about the experience helps get it out of our head and in front of us where we can examine it without judgment.

You already have a set of tools and techniques in your writing arsenal. These strategies come in handy for journaling.

Ask questions to get started. What am I feeling right now? What do I want to do about it? If I choose to act now, what are the possible outcomes? How can I work through this? These questions will generate others.

Our journal can be as simple or as elaborate as we like. I have a favorite brand of leather-bound, lined journal that has 384 cream-colored pages, each graced with a fleur-de-lis at the bottom. I journal daily and have hand written over 7200 pages since September 8, 2002. I note the date and time of each entry. I use different colors of ink to enliven my writing and add an extra dimension of focus.

You can also journal in a word processing document on your computer or use one of several online journaling programs and apps.

Journaling helps me name the problem, identify the components and my emotions, and release strong feelings. It helps ground and center me, and is an excellent complement to my therapy sessions. I often discuss a journal entry in therapy, and I just as often journal what we discussed in a session.

Consider your threshold for safety when journaling. Protect it and keep it as private as you need to. Show or discuss it with other people according to your comfort level.

Freedom Beyond Shame

Working through the layers of shame can be rewarding and powerful, though neither simple nor easy. The time spent can open avenues and vistas beyond imagination.

Approaching shame with an attitude of healing, rather than trying to fix what happened, will support you and help sustain your efforts. As you overcome shame, you’ll overcome the associated writer’s block, too. Your stories — and your life — will be all the richer for it.

All the best to you as you explore the shame in your life. You and your writing are worth it.

What are some techniques you have for working through strong emotions that act like writer’s block and threaten your writing? Let us know in the comments.


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Setting of a Story: 3 Ways Going Outside Can Improve Your Writing

Our job as writers is to transport our readers into our stories. A high-octane plot and three-dimensional characters are obviously necessary to accomplish this goal, but so is an immersive setting of a story.

The setting of a story is often overlooked when describing a scene. We all want to move on to the next plot twist and wasting important space on what trees look like will just bore the readers, right?


To draw readers fully into a scene, we need setting. We want them to forget they’re reading and make them experience everything our characters are experiencing.

Sometimes, you can get away with building the setting of a story straight from your imagination. Sometimes, you can’t.

The Argument for Going Outdoors

I’m what you would call an “outdoorsy person.” I love being outside in any weather, at any time of day. Nature inspires me, clears my head, and gets me out of my desk chair for a little while.

You don’t have to be a nature person to get the benefits of absorbing your surroundings. And you don’t have to live in the middle of the woods to write about the outdoors. Even sitting on your porch or taking a quick jaunt around the block can infuse you with new energy and enthusiasm.

3 Ways to Be More Present

Okay, you’re outside, standing on a hill, looking at the sunset. Now what?

We’re constantly surrounded by everything we need to build a great setting of a story, but we often ignore all that in our rush to the next thing.

Pay attention to your surroundings. Immerse yourself in your own experiences, and you’ll be able to draw on them later.

NOTE: I’ve used a rural setting as an example, but this applies to urban settings as well.

Here are three things to think about while outdoors:

1. Your Senses

You already know the importance of using all five senses to improve your writing, but it can be hard to notice anything deeper than the obvious.

Let’s take our sunset example from earlier. It’s obviously gorgeous, and you can probably describe the colors of the sunset quite well.

Look deeper.

Close your eyes. Can you hear someone crunching through the woods in the distance? Songbirds? Traffic? The woman walking her dog across the field: Is she slumped from cold or fanning herself from heat? Young, old, talking on her cell phone? Is she attentive to her dog or zoned out? What does the air smell like? What does the ground feel like?

Pay attention to the less obvious and you’ll draw in your readers.

Remember: You don’t have to use all five senses in every description. Select the most useful senses for the scene.

PRO TIP: Try observing the same setting at different times of day or during different seasons.

2. Similes and Metaphors

Similes and metaphors add layers to your prose, allowing the reader to experience a deeper understanding of the setting. They also allow you to enhance character description and plot, establish mood and tone, and can cut down on overly verbose descriptions.

When you’re observing your surroundings, don’t just note the sensory details around you, but think about comparisons.

Right now, I’ve got a pile of snow outside my house that’s mid-melt and looks like a Smurfs hat. See, I didn’t have to describe the shape and curve of this particular pile of snow in order for you to get my meaning.

Back to the sunset on the hill. You’ve noticed the sunset is purple and yellow. That’s all well and good, but boring. What do those colors remind you of? For me, it’s a bruise, which enhances other aspects of my story, as my main character has just been betrayed by a friend.

The sunset swirled with varying shades of purple and yellow, spreading like an angry bruise across the horizon.

The “bruising sunset” is a bit overdone anymore, but you get the point.

Don’t just go with the obvious (aka, cliché) similes and metaphors. Think deeper. Get creative. Have some fun with it.

3. Spying

We don’t all have access to that hill at sunset, and we don’t all want to write about nature. (Though plenty of nature resides in cities as well.) If you or your characters prefer a more urban environment, pay attention to the people around you.

Yes, I’m giving you permission to spy.

I once encountered a middle-aged man decked out like a hippie browsing outside an antique store. Long gray hair, bellbottoms, bandana, smelled awful. He was so out of place, I just had to linger near him for a moment. He was chatting on an iPhone about his investments while thumbing through art prints. The whole situation stunned me.

To this day, he is still the most fascinating person I’ve ever seen. I possibly would’ve noticed him without consciously spying, but I wouldn’t have moved closer to hear his conversation.

No matter what you’re doing, pay attention to the people around you. What are they doing? How do they walk? Noting mannerisms can add layers to your characters. Are they talking to someone? What are they saying? Snippets of conversation can spawn an entire chapter idea, and introduce you to better dialogue.

Try not to be creepy, though.

Immerse Yourself

The setting of a story is just as important as other aspects of your writing. In order to establish an immersive setting for your readers and not rely on overused descriptions, you need to go outside and experience your surroundings. Observe. Take note.

Be present in your setting and your readers will be, too.

Any other tips to immerse yourself in outdoor settings? Let me know in the comments.

By Sarah Gribble

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How to Use Question Marks With Quotation Marks

We’ve covered when to use quotation marks. But when you throw question marks and exclamation points into the mix, things can get a little tricky. Let’s demystify this quotation mark conundrum, shall we?

Buckle up. We may experience some turbulence.

Periods, Commas, and Quotation Marks

Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, whether they be single quotes or double quotes.

“I told you that you shouldn’t try walking barefoot on broken glass,” Mickey said.

Carter responded, “I believe you actually said, ‘you shouldn’t try walking on shattered glass.’”

Question Marks and Exclamation Points

Question marks and exclamation points, however, are a little trickier. Rules of logic come into play.

If the question or exclamation is within the quotation marks, then the punctuation also goes within the quotes.

“My feet are killing me!” Mark wailed.

Carter asked, “Well, why didn’t you pay attention to Mick’s warning?”

On the other hand, if the question or exclamation is not part of the quote itself, the punctuation goes outside the quotes.

Have you ever shared Forrest Gump’s sentiment that “life is like a box of chocolates”?

A Caveat

Keep in mind, these are the rules for American English. The Brits have a different method of punctuating with quotation marks, so if you’re writing for an audience in the UK, these rules don’t necessarily apply to your work.

Do quotation marks ever trip you up? What sticky punctuation situations have you written yourself into? Let me know in the comments.

By Liz Bureman


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Poetry Prompts for Ranting and Raving

It’s easy to think of poetry as soft, flowery, and convoluted. It’s the stuff of Shakespeare, greeting cards, and children’s books. It’s precious, sweet, and erudite.

But some of the most exciting modern poetry defies all those stereotypes, and you need look no further than the slam poetry and spoken word communities to see how poetry can be infused with rage, passion, and humor.

These poets have mastered the art of ranting and raving with passion via performance poetry. It’s no wonder that during live recordings of some of their most impassioned poems, the crowd can be heard hooting and hollering.

Today’s poetry prompts encourage you to write a poem that unleashes your passion.

Poetry Prompts

You can use these poetry prompts to write any kind of poem you want. But for some reason, poems that rant and rave work exceptionally well in performance poetry. These pieces have luster on the page, but they explode when read aloud, so I recommend working on a poem that is meant to be performed. There is a list of links to some excellent recordings of performance poetry at the end of this post.

How to use these poetry prompts:

Choose one of the lists below and write a poem using all of the words in the list. You can also write a poem mixing and matching words from these lists or using all of the words from all of the lists.

Social Consciousness Personal Affronts Road Rage & Pet Peeves

Explore Performance Poetry

Need some ideas to help you get started with these poetry prompts? Below are links to a few examples of performed poems that are beautifully executed — well written and brilliantly performed. Once you follow the link, you’ll need to click the pod icon to listen to the performances.

WARNING: some of these poems may contain offensive language. But they show the breadth of subject matter that a performance poem can tackle. Some are full of anger, others are imbibed with grace, and a couple are sprinkled with humor. Enjoy!

All these poems and many more can be found on IndieFeed Performance Poetry, one of my favorite podcasts that is unfortunately no longer active; but the archives remain online for all to enjoy. I highly recommend checking it out (you can also access it via iTunes).

By Melissa Donovan


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3 Types of Conflict and Why You Need to Use Them

Conflict is necessary for all stories. It doesn’t matter what kind of story it is — novel, short story, mystery, romance, thriller, children’s, adult — it will always need conflict. In order to keep the plot interesting and exciting, some type of conflict must be there. It gives your characters obstacles they have to overcome before they can reach their goals.

But how do you create conflict for your characters?

3 Types of Conflict

Conflict can come in innumerable shapes and sizes, but they can ultimately be broken down into one of three categories. Are you using these three types of conflict in your stories?

1. Conflict between your characters

Characters can argue, disagree, disobey the others’ wishes, keep secrets from each other, betray each other, and do many other things that would cause two or more people to butt heads. The most common kind of conflict between characters is when the protagonist and their enemy end up in the same room together.

That’s not to say friends and family can’t fight, though. In fact, conflict between allies can make a difficult situation a thousand times more interesting.

2. Conflict between your characters and the outside world

When events outside of your characters’ control occur — unexpected illness, a sudden loss of money, a death in the family, an injury, global events, etc. — characters are forced to react. Whether they deal with their situation in a poor or healthy way is up to you, the writer, but nevertheless, it reveals a truth about your characters and feeds the fire of your plot.

3. Conflict between your characters and themselves

This is quite possibly my favorite type of conflict, mostly because it can be the most frustrating for your characters. When there are problems your characters have no power over, they can place their anger on an outside person or object. But when the problems your characters face come from themselves, they can only turn their anger inward.

This can be difficult to write, but if it is portrayed well, it is extremely rewarding.

Internal conflict can result from your characters losing faith in their religion, deciding whether or not to break or bend the rules for “the greater good,” wrestling with addiction, doing what’s right versus doing what’s easy, feeling out of control, and more.

Experiment With All Three Types

Stories can have any one of these possible types of conflict, or they can have all of them. What matters most is that there is plenty of it and that it is carried out in the most interesting way possible.

Avoid clichés, play with characters’ relationships with each other, put your characters in the most difficult situations possible, and think about how they will handle these obstacles in a way that is true to their personalities.

What’s your favorite type of conflict? Let us know in the comments.

By The Magic Violinist
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Writing Prompts: 7 Inspirational Ideas to Spark Your Creative Writing

7 Creative Writing Prompts to Spark a New Story

While the event doesn’t officially start until Monday, you may be wondering what to write about each day. Here are seven inspirational ideas to fuel your creativity as you tackle each 1,000 words of the challenge! What kinds of stories will these writing prompts lead you to tell?

1. Tell a “True” Story

The truth is, indeed, often stranger than fiction. Changing names and events as necessary, tell a true story from your own life and childhood about characters other than yourself. As an example, I’m currently workshopping a story from my hometown where a disgruntled employee blew up a gas station.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • What crazy character from your own life is empathetic, at least in his/her goals or desires?
  • What happened before-and-after a memorable childhood event? How can I explore the causes and effects that I didn’t witness?

2. “Travel” to an Extreme

With a quick Wikipedia and Google Map search, you can “visit” the South Pole, Mt. Everest, the mouth of a volcano — darned near anywhere. Set a fifteen-minute timer (so you don’t get too distracted) and do some super quick research, and then start writing!

  • Who visits this place regularly as an employee or family member? For whom is this “normal?”
  • What important object or goal would one pursue here? Why?
  • What unlikely or surprising reason might someone travel to this location? Explore that possibility!

3. Explore an Abandoned Location

The world is filled with once-glorious places that have since been abandoned. These incredible locations easily inspire the imagination, and website Bored Panda shares dozens of hi-resolution shots to fuel your pen!

  • What did ordinary life look like in these places before the end came?
  • What did that fateful day bring when everyone had to, or chose to, leave?
  • What happens to when a team of explorers go there today?

4. Change a Law of Physics

Science fiction and fantasy stories begin with one simple idea: The laws of physics aren’t actually laws.

Inspire yourself by asking, what if gravity, light, chaos, color, or practically anything related to a law of the world, was different? Let your story explore the possibilities!

  • Does everyone experience this, or just one person? Is that your hero?
  • What goals would someone want in this different world?

5. The Past, but From a New Point of View

History is usually agreed upon by most of its students. But what about the men and women who lived these events? What about the people who lost, died, or were pushed to the side, even if they were in the moral right?

Give “historical fiction” a twist of your own with this fun spark to your inspiration!

  • Were any of history’s villains empathetic? Whose story would be fun to tell?
  • Who was a witness to a famous historical event, and how was his/her life changed by that event?
  • What common, everyday (boring) goals were our great historical ancestors pursuing that might be surprising?

6. Dialogue Piece

Set yourself comfortably in a busy place with lots of conversation, like a coffee shop, restaurant, or waiting room. Listen specifically for a conversation with some conflict in it. Without being conspicuous, take over the conversation with your pen and explore where it goes and why.

  • Why do people speak with certain speech patterns or habits?
  • What motivates people to curse or use certain terms of endearment?
  • What aren’t your characters talking about, but avoiding or disguising?

NOTE: This is a great starter for folks with “writer’s block.” Don’t let the pressure to be “good enough” stop you from creating! Just have fun and try new things!

7. “What if I Lost It All?”

With this prompt, we force a protagonist to take a risk and lose everything. Then, we have to answer, “what then?”

Take a character from a work-in-progress, or quickly dream one up by giving him/her a goal and a problem. Then, immediately describe that character making a choice to pursue his/her goal, and failing.

  • What physical consequences would arise, and how would your protagonist deal with them?
  • What new goal would the protagonist find, and how would he/she begin pursuing it?
  • What other characters might appear in this moment of total loss?

Get Inspired!

There are so many other ways to get inspired, and these seven ideas barely scratch the surface.

So don’t give up on your commitment to the 7 Day Creative Writing Challenge! No matter what, dig deep and find something fun to explore and write about.

You’re worth it. Your passion to write is worth it. And to give that passion the writing habit it deserves, you need to complete the 7 Day Creative Writing Challenge like a champ.

Because that’s what this is all about: Building a writing habit.

What inspirational idea helps you write something new? Let us know in the comments! 

By David Safford

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How to Construe and Convey Tone in Poetry

In literature, tone is the mood, attitude, or emotional sensibility of a written work. In poetry, tone expresses the narrator’s disposition toward the poem’s subject, the reader, or the narrative itself.

We might describe a poem’s tone as irreverent, relaxed, sarcastic, solemn, jubilant, or desperate. Tone can be any emotion or state of mind, and a single poem can include a combination of tones.

When we’re speaking, our tone is expressed through inflection. We use pitch and stress to communicate the attitude behind the words we’re saying. If I say, “Get out of here!” the tone of my voice will let you know whether I’m literally telling you to leave the room or whether I’m figuratively saying, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

In writing, we must approach tone with care, because it is often and easily misinterpreted. For example, sarcasm is commonly misread in text messaging and on social media. Someone types a sarcastic statement in jest, but the recipient takes it literally and may get offended or confused. Some people mark sarcastic remarks with to ensure clarity for this reason.

If communicating tone is so difficult, how can we interpret and communicate it effectively in poetry?

Tone in Poetry

Tone is conveyed through every aspect of a poem: imagery, connotation, even rhythm.

Consider two poems about death. One poem might use an image of a sunset while another uses dried flowers. The image of a sunset is warm, restful, even relaxing. But the dried flowers are brittle and lifeless. The image that the poet chooses will determine whether the poem’s tone is comforting or despairing.

Connotation is similarly crucial in poetry. Think about the difference between the word bum and the word pauper. Although these two words might be used to describe the same person or situation, they have strikingly different connotations. In a poem about poverty, the word choice will tint the meaning and reveal the poem’s attitude about the poor.

A poem’s rhythm can also contribute to its tone. As mentioned, when we speak, our inflections help listeners determine the attitude behind the words we’re saying. Rhythm is used similarly in poetry to affect tone. Short snappy lines could make a poem feel frantic or excited. Lengthy lines with a lot of long vowels can give a poem a relaxed or haughty tone.

These are just a few examples of elements that convey tone in poetry. Can you identify any other literary devices that are common in poetry and explain how they might be used to convey tone?

Studying Tone in Poetry

Consider the confident, sassy attitude of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” contrasted with the sorrowful yet playful tone of “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by E.E. Cummings. Or contrast the tone of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” with the tone of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” How do these poems differ in tone? How did the poets convey tone? And how does the tone of each poem affect the reader?

Select two poems from the literary canon and for each one, choose one to three words that describe its tone. Then look for the elements within each poem that convey its tone (metaphor, imagery, etc.) and note those as well, pulling lines, phrases, and words from the poem to support your interpretation. Finally, write a short essay of about one page comparing and contrasting the tones of the two poems and explaining how each poem communicates its tone.

How Do You Tone?

When you review your work, do you check for tone? Have you ever made revisions because the language in a poem wasn’t conveying the right tone? Share your thoughts on tone in poetry by leaving a comment, and keep writing poems!

By Melissa Donovan


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Story is Conflict

If a story were a bus, conflict would be the driver.

Conflict steers a story, moves it forward, reverses it, stops it in its tracks, and slows or accelerates the pacing.

More importantly, conflict keeps readers glued to the page. Readers want to see how the characters will deal with conflict. Will they find solutions to their problems? Overcome their challenges? Resolve their issues?

Stories contain conflicts large and small, from an impending threat that would wipe out life on planet Earth to minor scuffles in which characters can’t agree on what to have for dinner. When well crafted and worked deftly into the plot, any kind of conflict can be interesting. 

Conflict is Difficult

Conflict makes life difficult for the characters, providing obstacles for them to overcome and challenges they must face head-on. It’s obvious that conflict is at the heart of any plot: the hero must overcome the antagonist or the central story problem. But the core conflict often looms over the many smaller conflicts that are peppered throughout a story, obscuring them.

Let’s look at Star Wars: A New Hope as an example (spoiler warning!). The story is set amidst an epic conflict between a rebellion and an authoritarian regime. The story’s hero, Luke Skywalker, finds himself caught up in this conflict as he sets forth on a journey to become a Jedi knight. Conflict abounds in the story: Luke’s uncle won’t let him go to the pilot academy; the new droid runs away and Luke must find it; the sand people attack Luke; his farm is raided by Stormtroopers who kill his aunt and uncle; Luke gets assaulted by strangers in the cantina; he embarks on a friction-riddled relationship with the smuggler Han Solo. And those are just a few examples of conflict from the first act. Conflicts large and small thwart Luke and his companions along every step of their journey all the way through to the end of their story.

Some conflicts are more challenging than others, but this constant onslaught of conflict makes the characters’ path through the story’s events challenging — and interesting. Some conflicts result in failure; others lead to success. Ultimately, the payoff is worth it: Luke begins learning the ways of the Force, rescues the princess, and joins the rebellion to help them destroy the Death Star. Victory is sweet.

Conflict is Everywhere

The conflicts in Star Wars range from interpersonal (friction between Luke and Han Solo) to physical (the scuffle with patrons in the cantina) to internal (Luke faces an internal struggle in which he must choose between joining the rebellion or remaining on his uncle’s farm) and environmental (Luke and his companions get trapped in trash compactor on the Death Star).

When looking for more conflict to bring into our stories, we need look no further than the plot, characters, and setting that we have established.

  • The plot, or events in the story, provide conflict by creating challenging situations for the characters.
  • Characters are perhaps one of the richest sources of conflict. From love triangles to minor arguments to major blowouts, relationships are fraught with friction.
  • The story world, or setting, often provides ample conflict — from major events, such as natural disasters, to minor inconveniences, like a leaky roof, a story’s setting can present plenty of conflict for the characters.

Conflict is Story

Every conflict heightens readers’ engagement, because in large part, we read to see how the characters will resolve the many conflicts that arise throughout a story — the big ones and the little ones.

That doesn’t mean you should stuff your story with conflict just for the sake of doing so. Each conflict should move the story toward its ultimate conclusion. You might find dozens of opportunities within a story where two characters might disagree with each other, and these conflicts could be interesting. But how do they contribute to the characterization, the plot, and the themes — or do they? Conflict is good for story, but it needs to have purpose or meaning. It needs to support the story.

How do you approach conflict in your stories? Do you focus on the central conflict and let other conflicts arise naturally? Do you find yourself going off on tangents based on minor conflicts? Share your experiences with story conflict by leaving a comment, and keep writing.

By Melissa Donovan


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