I first read North of Beautiful back after I heardJustina Chen speak at a SCBWI writers conference. She was lively and local (to me; she was living in the Seattle area) so I thought I should give her book a go. Whoa. I loved it. Really. And I read a lot of books for a lot of reasons; I don’t expect to love anything anymore—I just want to learn.
But I loved NoB and knew I wanted to write about it—eventually. But as life ground on, I completely forgot about the book, until a mentee asked me to review an article she was writing about the use of theme in How to Train Your Dragon. Reading her article, I knew she wasn’t referring to theme, but something else. I just couldn’t put my finger on the something else.
Then I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted. In Twisted, Tyler, the main character, is sent to in-school suspension. There, his English teacher reviews symbolism, motif, and theme. I was a little ticked at LHA for not telling us readers the difference but, well, she wasn’t writing an English textbook. It did lead me to Wikipedia and a few other sources (come on! I’m a (relatively) responsible researcher) to look up the differences and that taught me about NoB.
Justina Chen is a master of motif.
According to Wikipedia (OK, sometimes I’m just a lazy researcher), motif is “any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme or mood.”
JC’s use of maps and mapping terminology is consistent, constant, and clearly helps build on the narrative’s themes of finding and accepting yourself.
The book’s cover includes a compass rose, and the title is “North” of Beautiful. I don’t usually include cover and title when learning about books because often the author has no or little say in these things, but, what the author definitively has a say in are the parts and chapter titles. And the motif continues throughout that structure: the three parts are titled “Terra Nullis” (null earth, Latin), “Terra Incognita” (unknown or untested earth), and “Terra Firma.” The theme of each part reflects the part’s title. In “Terra Nullis,” Terra feels awkward, hating her face (she has a port wine stain) and herself. She is unsure of her future, her relationship with her parents, and her art. She feels like she is nothing. In “Terra Incognita,” Terra starts exploring her options, working on her art, trying a new surgery. Her trials at becoming a self-confident independent young woman are random stabs in the dark, unknown and untested. In the third part, “Terra Firma”, Terra’s journey solidifies as she grows into herself.
JC keeps the motifs going with the book’s chapter titles. Titles include “The Topography of Guilt” (topography is the study of the surface of the earth), “Here be Dragons” (in reference to dragons old mapmakers drew in the margins where unknown lands lay), “Dead Reckoning” (the process of calculating your current position by using a previously determined position), and “Orientation.” While each chapter references some aspect of mapmaking, the chapter titles are not random.
In “Orientation,” Terra and Jacob meet; they swap stories, learning about each other and their current journeys (they meet in Leavenworth—which really is as JC describes it—halfway to their final destinations). Additionally in this chapter, Jacob, as a Chinese Goth with a scar from a cleft palate surgery, shows (orients) Terra to another way to deal with the stares she receives because of her port wine stain.
It keeps going. The use of mapmaking as motif continues with the character names: Terra (earth) and Terra’s brothers--Mercatur and Claudius. (As a side note, I first learned about the Mercator mapping system on The West Wing.)
JC uses mapping as subplots in the book as well. Terra’s father is a disgraced cartographer. Jacob introduces her to geocaching (a sport/hobby where you try to find “treasure” caches using GPS coordinates. If you have a smart-phone, there’s an app for that. The Boy and I have found a dozen or so caches so far and have introduced a whole mess of other kids to the adventure. If it hadn’t been for JC, I’d never have known about it!). Terra’s aunt leaves one of Terra’s father’s challenged maps torn in pieces as a cache treasure.
Additionally, JC, through Terra, uses maps as metaphors for Terra’s feelings:
“But all maps lie. … even the best maps distort the truth… Greenland balloons; Africa stretches.” Page 4
“But Erik was at my side like a lost adventurer chasing the North Star.” Page 20
“Unlike his cartographic namesake, Geradus Mercatur, Merc wasn’t just laying down lines for lands that had already been discovered, transferring a globe into a flat map. He was seeing the world.” Page 41
It goes on, throughout the book, instances of mapmaking changing lives; mapping terminology describing Terra’s thoughts and feelings; mapping as an activity to provide background for the characters.
Because mapping is used so heavily throughout the book, and it is tied so closely to the theme (you need a map to find something, even if it’s yourself), motif can easily be confused with theme. The two may overlap, and motif can be used to build theme, but motif is separate: a subset of theme.
I can’t help but think this use of motif would make a good story idea generator. Figure out your hobbies—knitting, horseback riding, sailing—anything with its own language. How can you use the language of your chosen hobby to show—anything? Then build a plot around that.
Regardless, when you’re ready to add another layer to your novel through revision, scan for any powerful images you’ve already used and see if you can’t repeat those images, even just two or three times, to build up your theme. And read North of Beautiful to see how a master does it.
Bonus! A few characters from JC’s Girl Overboard make a cameo appearance here.
Whine: Justina (can I call her Justina when I’ve only heard her speak and read her books? Or is that like stalking?) totally used the naked spa in her book before I could. Pout.
Post first appeared on my now-defunct blog in 2010
A three-word writing prompt is… just that. Three words chosen at semi-random. You write whatever those three words bring to mind. If possible, try to include those three words in the writing, but this isn’t required. Think of it as free association.
The three-word writing prompt is my personal favorite. I always come up with new story or character ideas when I use it. Sometimes the ideas don’t pan out, but I always feel creative and “like a writer” when I have to force myself to stop when the timer goes off.
But, to use a three-word writing prompt, you have to have a set of words to pull from. Or a helpful writing website to provide words for you. Each month, I’ll do just that. If you find you enjoy the three-word writing prompt, you can hop on to your favorite search engine and look up other “three word writing prompt” websites.
Or… you can create your own. You need a list of words, slips of paper, and a container. The paper and container are the easy part. You can print your words onto fancy cardstock, cut the words out, fold them in half, and drop the paper slips into a mason jar. I just did that for a girlfriend’s birthday present. You can write words on strips of paper and toss them into a bowl. How crafty are you?
No, the hard part is coming up with the list of words. When I created my friend’s present, I started my list by writing down some of my favorite words: pellucid, chiaroscuro, juxtaposition. Then, I added concrete nouns: dog, chair, tree, car. People (nurse), places (park), things (toy), times of day (noon). Next, adjectives. I went a little overboard here, my first list out, including all the color and size words I could think of. Go ahead and go a little crazy at first. It’s easier to cut than to add more later (this is true with revising also).
Then, I wanted words that could do double-duty. Words that have more than one meaning, or that could be both a noun or a verb. Words like bell (belling the cat, sleigh bell, church bell, doorbell), ring (jewelry, fairy ring, ring a bell), flute (the fluting on a pie, the musical instrument).
Next, I thought about words that had “freight.” Words with a LOT of connotation behind them, or a deep history. Words like: blood, lightning, betrayal.
Next, I thought about and then rejected, because this was for a gift, words that may be specific to a particular genre. If I knew my friend was going to write only space operas, I might include words like planet, stars, FTL, tachyons. If she wanted to write only medieval fantasy, I might include words like wench, chamber pot, knight, trews. Mystery writer? Words like blood, clue, detective, pistol.
This left me with a VERY long list. Too long for me to cut out all those squares, even with a fancy paper cutter. So, I started cutting (words from my list; not paper squares!). First went synonyms. Then, sadly, most of my favorite words. They were either too specific (pellucid) or too hard to spell (chiaroscuro), which would have me stumbling during my writing. Then, any words that didn’t give me ideas just by looking at them.
Finally I was left with a list of some 40 words. That seemed plenty.
Now, you try it.
So, if you want to create your own, personalized word list, I recommend you follow a similar process. Start a list by using:
Your favorite words
Words specific to the genre you write
Concrete nouns, such as:
Or, use mine!
Then, cut back until you have a manageable list.
Adjectives (describing words): colors, sizes, textures
Verbs (action words)
Double-duty words: words that can be both nouns and verbs; words that have multiple, disparate meanings
Words that carry freight with you
Remember back in Read 1000 books about how I don’t like to review books? I don’t. But I love to read, both for pleasure and for learning. And I’ve learned something about writing from every single book I’ve read.
Before I started reading Going Bovine by Libba Bray, I had just read through a friend’s complete novel manuscript and two teen writers’ chapter submissions and received feedback on a few scenes from my novel. The common feedback? No one had any idea what any of the characters looked like.
THAT is a problem, I thought. And then I picked up Going Bovine and noticed almost right away Bray’s use of character descriptions and how she sprinkles them, repeatedly, into the story. For example:
Technically, girls aren’t allowed in men’s bathrooms, but since only the losers, present company included, ever use this one, it’s a nonissue. Besides, Rachel’s five ten with six tattoos and seven piercings. Nobody gives her shit.
Kyle tucks his long, stringy blonde hair behind his ears.
The door bangs open, and a really small dude with a huge ‘fro comes barreling out, pushing up his sleeves. It takes me a minute to realize he’s a dwarf.
She’s [Jenna] standing beside the water fountain with her dance squad, her dark blond hair pulled up into the requisite ponytail and cascading ribbons.
But against the uniform pert tan-blondness that is the dance team, my [Cameron’s] shaggy dark hair, British-musician-on-the-dole pale skin, and six feet of seriously awkward body stand out like a strip of film negatives plopped down on top of their happy group photo.
Eubie’s growing a little soul patch. It looks good with the dreads and the multicolored T-shirt emblazoned with the face of some famous reggae star.
Even though Bray introduces four characters in one chapter (pages 10 – 15), they each have a little something, not a huge description, but a little something that helps readers distinguish them. And that little something is so skillfully done, and so subtly, that we recognize the characters when they appear later in the book, like Rachel and Eubie, either as themselves or morphed into a new character on Cameron’s (the main character) road trip.
Not only does Bray provide individual descriptions unique to her major characters, but she also takes advantage of reader expectations and/or stereotypes to help fill in details for her minor characters: Jenna has dark blond hair, and she’s part of the dance squad. We can deduce she’s good looking, tan (even before Cameron’s description of himself), thin, and maybe even tall, based on our idea of what girls look like when they’re on the dance team. And as a minor character, we can even guess some things about Jenna’s character—again based on our ideas of a high school dancer.
Don’t be afraid to use stereotypes to help flesh out minor characters. Don’t RELY on those stereotypes and don’t use them for major characters, or for every minor character, but for a few characters—especially those who really just serve as background decoration—it’s quite useful.
And remember to “sprinkle” in your characters’ descriptions, as Bray does, in bits and pieces continually throughout your story to remind readers what they look like and how they act. Have Eubie rub his soul patch or push his dreads back under a cap (Bray puts him in new band T-shirts for almost each scene), but also have a reason why he does it. Does Eubie rub his soul patch when he’s nervous? Does he push his dreads out of his eyes just so he can see (has it become a habitual gesture)? These repetitions make your characters real to our readers.
Post first appeared on my now-defunct blog in August 2010
If you’ve never used writing prompts before, it can be a little … weird… figuring out how to use them. It seems like it should be simple: choose a prompt and start writing. But there are some places where a writer can stumble, like putting too much emphasis on perfection or spending too much time on the prompt and not enough on the WIP, so some guidelines may be appreciated.
To wit: how to use a writing prompt.
Get your WIP ready.
Place your WIP near you (or open it in a new window and put it in the background). Gather anything else you will need to work on your WIP near you (Drink? Freshly sharpened pencil? Floor plan for the castle?) and then ignore it. Cover it with something if necessary. You want NO excuses to do anything BUT work on your WIP after the writing prompt.
Choose a prompt.
Stop writing when the timer goes off.
7 minutes works well for me. If you are even more impatient than I am (which, honestly, seems REALLY unlikely), try 5 minutes. If you are a slow writer or typer, try setting a timer for 15 minutes. You need to choose a time that is short enough that it doesn’t eat into your primary writing time, but long enough for you to get warmed up.
Any prompt will do. You can also choose to “free write.” Write whatever comes to mind, stream-of-consciousness fashion. A prompt helps give your thoughts focus, which can be helpful if the blank page stresses you out.
At all. Don’t think about the right word, don’t go back and fix spelling, don’t reread, just write. Don’t stop moving your hand/fingers. Even if you have no idea what to write, just keep writing. Anything.
If you feel yourself getting “stuck” or pausing, try one of these tricks:
Start describing, using all your senses, what is around you. For instance, I am typing this on my deck. Two birds are whistling back and forth to each other, one on my right and one a few houses down on my left. I can just hear car traffic from the lake-road at the bottom of the hill. The awning is down, blocking my view of the sky but I can see the cedar trees and maple trees in front of me, in all their shades of green. My feet are planted on the solid surface of the deck, just a little pebbly, and my bum is slanting forward on the rocking chair, curving my back a LOT and just starting to cause a pinch of pain. I really should sit up straight and maybe start those core exercises I keep thinking about. Just keep writing.
Start over, right where you are. Rewrite/retype the prompt and see where this new start takes you. Rewrite the prompt several times if you must.
Write “I remember I remember I remember” over and over again until you remember something and then start writing that.
Write “I hate this stupid exercise” and why you hate it.
Set a timer for a reasonably short amount of time.
Begin writing and do not stop.
Begin working on your WIP as soon after your exercise as possible.
Save your work, or don’t. (When I start writing about people, possible characters, I save my work. If all I’ve done is whine, I don’t.) Do NOT edit. Don’t even reread. Now is not the time to turn on your editing mind. Now is the time to stay in your creative, writing mind.
You want to start working on your WIP while your creative muscles/energy are high and your critiquing energy is low.
Now, get writing.
Why you should be using writing prompts
A few years ago, I finished reading A Single Shard. I loved it so much, I immediately headed over to the author Linda Sue Park’s website and read everything she had to say about writing. This was when my son was still a baby and taking up an inordinate amount of my time. I wanted a quick-and-easy out to spending lots of time writing every day, something I could easily do in between naps and feedings, playtime and errands.
Well, there isn’t an easy out, but there was something I could do. Park mentions she “heard an editor say, ‘Read a thousand books of the genre you're interested in. THEN write yours.’ "
And she went on to do just that. She read, wrote a book, and sold it on its first submission. She later won the Newbery Medal Award for A Single Shard.
Reading widely improves your writing.
And the converse is also true: NOT reading will NOT improve your writing. It may even hurt your chances at selling your work.
What do you learn when reading someone else’s book? Glad you asked.
Reading in your genre
When you read books in the genre you plan to write (fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, horror, picture books, middle grade, young adult…), you learn
What you like, and therefore, what you want to write. After reading many of Ellen Hopkins’ books, I’ve learned I don’t like books that bleak. I want my books to end in hope. Do you like books with a lot of action? Romance? Shopping? Reading widely will help you hone in on your own interests.
What’s become cliché. Diana Wynne Jones wrote The Tough Guide to Fantasyland exposing many of the clichés in fantasy novels (my favorite: “horses can be used just like bicycles”), but as no one (I know of) has done the same for every genre available, you’ll just have to read to ensure your plot, characters, and conflict contain some spark of originality that will appeal to tired readers.
How to handle description. Some genres (fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction come to mind) love sweeping passages of description. Others, especially YA, don’t. As you read in your genre, you internalize how much is too much and when and where to place setting details.
How point of view (POV), word choice, verb tense, and other language decisions affect the tone of your story. First person present tense can create a close—sometimes claustrophobic—tone, but it’s also common for young adult novels.
You also internalize certain…not rules, but guidelines, for your genre. By reading widely within your genre of choice, you learn whether sex, drugs, cursing are "allowable." You internalize plot pacing commonalities—how much tension do you need to create? How often do you need to break the tension with some sort of relief? How long can the story continue after the ultimate denouement?
Reading outside your genre
Don’t limit yourself. Read widely. If you plan to write YA, make sure you read nonfiction, mysteries, fantasy, picture books. Everything. By reading outside your genre, you learn
Storytelling techniques that you can apply to your novel to give it a new spin that may sift it to the stop of an editor’s slush pile.
How to combine nonfiction elements into your fiction work and how to write your nonfiction work using fiction techniques to make your writing lift off the page and capture a reader’s interest.
New vocabulary used in perhaps new ways. (I love reading Barbara Hambly and Neal Stephenson just for that reason. She taught me chiaroscuro; he taught me gallimaufry. I’m hoping to use those words someday in a work of my own…)
Learning from books
I have a hard time writing actual book reviews. I know how hard it is to write a novel, start to finish, to revise it over and over and over again, to tentatively show it to someone, hoping for good feedback but likely getting notes for yet more revisions. If a book has been published, SOMEONE saw enough value in it to purchase it, put it through even more editing revisions, publicize it, and sell it.
So, I won’t be writing any book reviews here. Instead, I’ll share what I’m reading and what I’ve learned from it.
Read 1000 books. Then write one.
This post first appeared on my previous blog in August 2010.
Just about every website about writing offers writing prompts, including this one (yay!). So, what’s a writing prompt? And why does every writing website offer some?
A writing prompt is a jumping off point: a series of words, an incomplete sentence, a memory jogger, a picture. A prompt is meant to be provocative. (If a prompt doesn’t spark a thought in your murky brain, it may not the right prompt for you.) It’s meant to give you something that you can write about.
So, a writing prompt is a pretty simple thing. But given its simplicity, why all the attention on writing prompts?
They are powerful. Writing prompts can help you get unstuck, provide story ideas, improve your writing, and more
Create a practice.
If you are just getting started writing, coming up with the perfect story idea can be a big, scary, stressful chore. Committing to writing something every day on your new story idea can leave you feeling overwhelmed and convinced you don’t have enough creativity to keep the story going. Staring at a blank screen is enough to get anyone committed.
But, COMMITTING (see what I did there?) to writing to a prompt every day, however, is so much more attainable. It gives you a baby step to the bigger goal you want to achieve, a little practice at writing, a little practice at VALUING your writing enough to schedule time for it, a jog to your brain that this practice is important to you so quit nagging about all those chores that aren’t getting done RIGHT THIS INSTANT.
Ease blank page anxiety.
If the thought of filling a blank page with your very own words is enough to make you want to run away from your screen screaming, a writing prompt can help. Simply type the prompt at the top of the page and BAM. No more blank screen. The prompt gives your brain something to focus on. Something other than fear: fear of mistakes, fear of lacking ideas, fear of not being good enough.
Just take a deep breath and focus on the words in the prompt.
Improve your (perception of your) creativity.
I always start a project convinced I will suddenly run out of all ideas. It’s the same feeling I have on Friday night at 5 pm and the family is STARVING and alls I have in the kitchen is some ground beef, a can of tomatoes, and an onion. Ain’t no way a tasty dinner is coming out of that kitchen. And, ain’t no way, I always think, a good story idea is coming out of the air.
But I’ve been cooking since I was 12 years old. I have confidence in my abilities, and so, once I silence the starving horde, I eventually realize I can make sloppy joes, or tacos, or baked ziti.
I have that same confidence in my creativity when I’ve written to a few prompts. I always, ALWAYS, am able to write SOMETHING, even if I spend the first seven minutes whining about how I hate this prompt. And coming up with SOMETHING, even if I won’t use it in a story later, always makes me feel more creative, which makes me feel more confident, and, confidence is everything.
Create an idea repository.
Every time you write something you find yourself enjoying, every time you have to force yourself to stop writing when the timer goes off, well, those are the times you’ve come up with an idea worth pursuing. Save it. Wherever you store your ideas, store these short snippets of writing. Come back to it when you’re looking for a new project.
If you write to a prompt five days a week, chances are good you’ll get one good idea. If you write five days a week for a month, you’ll have at least four new ideas to pursue when the time comes.
Outrace your inner critic.
Many of us have an inner critic, perched somewhere over our shoulders, reading everything we write and judging it. That’s not good enough. No one will like your writing. That’s dumb! Who says that anyway?
We have an obvious attachment to our WIPs, or else why would we be working on them? And that attachment gives our critic all the ammunition it needs to cow us into not writing. If you can begin your writing session by writing to a prompt, however, you give your creative mind time to wake up before your critical mind can squash it. You aren’t attached to this random piece of writing, you’re just writing. Start writing and intentionally ignore (or even actively shush) your critic, and your creative mind has a chance to take over. Even when you’ve finished writing to the prompt, your creative mind has a good chance of staying in control because you’ve paid attention to it, giving it more importance than your critical mind.
If you’ve been writing for a long time in a particular genre, or with a particular style, it can be pretty scary to break out of that rut. Writing first person POV when you’ve only ever done third may well feel impossible. You can’t take that risk on your WIP!
But, you CAN take that risk in a writing prompt. You have no attachment to the outcome of the prompt. You’re going to throw it away most likely so it doesn’t matter if it sucks so badly it must be deleted off your hard drive immediately to ensure that, to paraphrase Annie Lamott, your entire, awful, untalented self is not exposed to the world if you get hit by a bus and people search your writing for something to use in your eulogy.
So, go ahead. Take a risk. Write SciFi. Write in verse. Write from the POV of a brilliant six-year-old child. The worst that happens is you’ve learned, in only 15 minutes, that you HATE writing SciFi because of the stupid FTL problem.
Learn more about yourself and your writing.
If you can write every day for a few minutes by using a prompt, you’ll end up with a lot of time and attention paid to your words and to you, the person writing the words. You’ll start to notice you write better in the morning instead of the evening. Or that you like the ritual of lighting a candle and taking three deep breaths before beginning. You may notice can write easily in the red chair but you struggle when you sit at the kitchen table. You may notice you tend to overuse a phrase or that all of your characters have the same tics.
Use these nuggets of wisdom. Modify your writing practice based on what you’ve learned. For writing idiosyncrasies, just note them and save them for a later time, during revision, when you want your critiquing mind around.
Become part of a writing community.
Just about every writing website offers writing prompts. And most of those websites also offer a way to share what you’ve created based on that prompt. If writing is a lonely experience for you, sharing what you’ve written and commenting on what others have written (which is likely to be WILDLY different), and accepting the comments they give you, is one way to join a community of other writers, all working together to reach the same goal: writing something they are proud of sharing with others.
So… when will you start writing?
How to use writing prompts
I'm Val Serdy, and I'm an editor. I love writing, and I love writing about writing.