Every week, writer and writing coach Kate Johnston sends out to her TeamWriter Facebook group her Saturday Sentence Challenge. It goes like this:
As you can see, Kate challenges members of the group to take her provided “blah, grammatically incorrect, or just…really bad sentence” and tweak it into a sentence (or two, at the most) that encourages the reader to feel something. We can add or cut words and punctuation, change words, even add dialogue.
I love challenges like this because they’re short, simple, and often a refreshing change of pace from my current in-process projects. They offer an opportunity to step into another world or a different character’s shoes. This sidestepping, as it were, can even lead to new storylines, characters, and adventures down the road!
Last Saturday, Kate’s blah sentence prompt was:
The pie is really good.
When faced with a prompt, I let my brain romp freely until it stumbles over an idea with teeth. I don’t let it romp too long, though; with more than one longer-form project on my plate, I can’t afford to get too distracted. Luckily, Kate’s prompts come with enough leeway to go in lots of different directions, and I can usually find the direction I want to take within a few minutes. Tweaking takes more time, of course…but that’s what the challenge is about!
I’ve got a document where I keep these prompts, my process attempts, and my final results. It’s neat to be able to look back on them! And as I said before, I never know when a simple prompt idea might come back to me with greater force.
It didn’t take long for this latest prompt – The pie is really good – to tickle my brain. I usually try to keep my group posts and prompt shares on the safe side, but this one went in a naughtier direction. It seemed only fitting: I’m at a point in one of my larger projects where romance is coming to the fore, and my writing mind is working through that. Thus, this result:
If you’d like to join in on the fun of Saturday Sentence Challenges – and more! – check out Kate’s Facebook page!
In the last days of December 2017, a friend pointed me toward a writing competition. The theme for the competition was “Awakenings”. The group that posted the competition welcomed all genres, with a great desire for romance and speculative fiction, among others. I’ve written romance in many forms over the years, from the simple to the unapologetically raunchy. I had only a few days before the deadline, but I’d come up with – what I thought at the time – a straightforward love story set in a pseudo-familiar setting, and one I could finish pretty quickly.
Then I actually started to write it.
What poured from my brain was a twisty-turny, upside-down-reality tale of love, duty, patriotism, relationships, even politics(!) that took nearly a full five months to finish. It wasn’t what I had first planned, and it veered a lot from my original plot. But one lesson I’ve learned through writing fiction is that, when I allow the characters to speak freely, they will forge their own path. More often than not, that path is more satisfying than any I may have planned at the start.
Seven, like so many of my original characters, embraced his being-ness with so much quiet strength and determination, it overwhelmed me. I could think of no other story or character for those five months I wrote. In fact, writing became almost like transcribing. Many times, it felt like he was standing at my shoulder, telling me who should do what and what should happen next. That letting-go is one of the most joyful feelings I’ve experienced as a writer.
Dour Number Seven, a doodle by me.
I said I wouldn’t apologize for Seven’s story, and I won’t. He took me on a new journey into personhood, one I hadn’t considered before. I grew with him, and because of him. He made me open my eyes a little bit wider to the world around me. He’s a bit suspicious, as I am, and he’s quite the serious individual, as I can be. But he also has to trust himself, a lesson I took to heart along the way, too.
If any of this has piqued your interest, you can read “Number Seven and the Life Left Behind”, part 1, here.
I’ve posted this story for free because it’s a project I want to share with people. I am working on a hardcopy version, and when that’s available, I’ll be sure to share that news. In the meantime, if my story moved you at all, I’d encourage you to take a moment to consider where you are in the world today, and what struggles you see, nearby or faraway, hidden or in plain sight. Everywhere, there are people fighting the good fights: for freedom, equality, and love. This story is for them. And for me, and for you, because we’re all in this together.
A writer rarely creates a story in a vacuum. People influence us in their own ways. Sometimes, that influence makes it onto the page. Sometimes, it helps us just get to the page in the first place.
Thank you to Sue for giving me the impetus to write this story.
Thank you to Chase for joining me for the ride.
Your thoughtfulness and support means a lot to this lonely writer. 🙂
I’m one of the winners of 4amWriter’s “Save El Lobo Writing Competition”!
Head on over to Kate’s page and read her update, which includes all the winning entries. And, if you should be inspired to write your own wolf story, let me know. I’ll howl for you!
For those of you who are interested in how I approached this particular challenge, read on….
Whenever I set my mind to a writing challenge, the first thing I consider is what I can bring to it: style, scenarios, conflicts, maybe a plot twist for the ending. For Kate’s challenge – to write a short story or poem featuring wolves in a positive light – I knew I wanted to use description, to depict the beauty of a wolf in nature. After a few minutes of staring at the ceiling, letting my brain percolate, I came up with the not-very-subtle twist of a photographer using a sight and taking a “shot” much like a sniper might. The hunt of a photographer waiting for the perfect shot is much like waiting for the perfect moment when a target comes into the crosshairs. It would also allow me to tell a story in mostly-silent descriptive and action passages, a technique that’s been prevalent in my pleasure reading, of late.
Once I’ve got my scenario, I figure out who’s going to play my primary character. Given the plot I’d come up with, my PC needed to be a human. I’ve got a stable of go-to characters, but I wanted to do something a little bit different, this time. The main protagonist, Aksel, is a combination of bounty hunter Axton with a little bit of domestic dad Rob McAllister thrown in. Neither of those men can go anywhere without their respective partners, so I dropped in Aksel’s buddy Harald as something of a counterpoint to Aksel’s skill, and to give him someone to reveal his success to in the end.
Next, I just…start writing. Some images and descriptions flow fine, while other parts are obviously less polished. I even double-up on some phrases when I free-write, to play with the order of words and see how they fit. The picture below (click on it for the full-resolution version) shows my original draft in all its messy, stream-of-consciousness rawness.
As should be fairly clear, I don’t edit when I free-write; I just keep typing until I complete the idea. This free-write went on too long – almost 200 extra words too long – and it needed plenty of reworking. That doesn’t mean something good didn’t come out of it along the way, though.
This challenge’s tight word count confines – we were allowed 250 words max to tell the story – meant that I had to choose carefully what was worthwhile to the story as a whole. A lot of the setup and extraneous action had to go. For example, Aksel’s buddy Harald’s dump in the ice pond, as well as a slightly deeper explanation of the men’s relationship, neither of which did much for the main plot. I also really liked the idea of the protagonist facing down the white wolf alone.
The last bit – the reveal of the purpose of the photo quest – came about completely by accident, when I was typing out the men’s dialogue. I hadn’t even considered the relationship between Aksel and his father until those words came out from Harald’s mouth! I liked it a lot, though, even if it meant going back and figuring out a new lead-in for the story.
All in all, I like the final submitted version. It changed along the way, as stories tend to do. It even changed titles, from “White Wolf Hunt” to “Eyes of Gold Fire”. Since I’d already decided in my head that Aksel’s father had died, I could have had the primary character spend the entire story alone. But, I liked him having someone with whom he could share that tiny triumphant moment of the photo reveal. Because stories are better when they’re shared. Just like this one.
What’s your process for writing challenges? Have you submitted your writing to any contests lately? What did you think of my story of Aksel and the white wolf?
Last week, Kate Johnston, AKA 4amwriter, posted a writing contest on her blog. The contest involved writing a 250-word (max) story featuring wolves in a positive or hopeful light. Three entrants will be chosen as winners by Kate’s panel of judges on April 10, 2017.
It had been a while since I’d participated in a good, old fashioned writing contest, and this one was for such a good cause, I had to put down my editing/rewriting pen and give it a try. I’ll post my entry after the winners have officially been announced on the 4amwriter blog, so as not to potentially skew any of the judges, for good or ill. Not that anybody reads this blog anymore, let alone those judges, but I need to decide how to present my entry anyway (first draft with changes, or just final submission version?).
Part of Kate’s contest involved her donating $5 for every entry received. I was so touched by that endeavor, I decided to check out the site that prompted her to offer the contest in the first place. That site turned out to be the Wolf Conservation Center, a private, not-for-profit environmental education organization located in South Salem, NY. Per their webpage, the Wolf Conservation Center teaches people about wolves, their relationship to the environment and the human role in protecting their future.
I clicked through a bunch of the pages on the site, when I came to the Adopt a Wolf section. Now, I love looking at pictures of animals, and wolves have been a long-standing animal love of mine since the days of reading about the Wolfriders in Elfquest. I scrolled down the list of wolves, and then I saw her:
It seemed so fitting. Those sparkling eyes, that wily smile, and her name: Alawa, meaning “sweetpea” in Algonquin. For those of you who have read my “Finding Mister Wright” series, you’ll know that one of the principal cast characters, Paige, has several nicknames, most of them involving the letter P: peanut, pickle, and, as her grandparents call her, sweetpea. Nobody else would remember that little detail, but I did. The word sprung out at me from the screen, making me think of all of the happiness I’ve felt sharing Paige’s and her family’s stories. And so, I just had to adopt this gorgeous girl.
I’ve felt weighted down for a long time. Even my writing has lacked a certain spirit. But, this adoption made me feel good. Not just for the charity, but for the feeling of being connected to a greater whole. It’s naive to think that my writing can connect people that way, though that is certainly something I strive for. What this good feeling of giving gave me was a breather, a moment of openness to a world made more beautiful for this creature’s presence in it. I can only hope for me and my stories to mean as much, someday.
Did you do a wolf-write for 4amwriter’s Save El Lobo contest? What version of my own entry might you like to see? Who are your favorite wolves from stories?
I have a handful of writer friends I’ve been lucky enough to find through the wonders of blogging. One of them is writer/editor Kate Johnston, whom you may also know as 4amwriter on Twitter. Kate recently sent out a challenge: dare to write something new this summer. On her own blog – https://4amwriter.com/ – she offers eager participants looking for summertime motivation to send her a poem, short story, or even part of your novel-in-progress, for reading and general feedback! You also have a chance to win one of these fabulous prizes: a free copy of her e-book (Amazon.com buy link here, if you can’t wait), or an in-depth critique of your work!
Personal plug-time: Kate has given me critique on my own work, and I can attest that the insight and compassion in her feedback helped draw out a better writer in me – and it can do the same for you! So, if you need motivation to get that chapter or story down on paper this summer, this is it. Head over to Kate’s blog for more info! While you’re there, don’t forget to check out her e-books, with strategies and stories for writers of all permutations.
Kate’s “Dare to Write” challenge was just what I needed. I’d been struggling through slow rewrites of my science fiction team adventure story, and my writer’s heart was failing for the lack of progress. When the “Dare to Write” post notification popped up in my inbox, I headed over there right away. Partly because I have always enjoyed writing challenges, especially when I’m in a rut, but also because when a writer and coach like Kate says we should dare to do something, it is always worth the risk. This effort proved to be no different.
It took a few weeks to get down on paper all of the pieces and scenes for this latest “Finding Mister Wright” pre-fic, but I finally put together the short story of how being a parent can throw a romantic evening off-course…but also how that new course can lead to a far better destination. It’s a story I’ve had in my head for many moons, now, and it brought me a lot of joy to get it out of my head and into a form more tangible.
This particular story clocks in at just over 6000 words, so I will give folks here the same warning I gave Kate when I sent it in for the “Dare to Write” challenge: the story is not short, so I understand if length is a deterrent. It also features a minor sex scene between two consenting adults of the same gender, so if that makes you uncomfortable, no hard feelings if you don’t click on the link. I will say that the sex is not so important as what’s happening around it. It may sound strange, but these are as close to real people as I can make them, with personal concerns and hangups as well as desires. I’ve also been trying to temper my sex scenes – especially between these two characters – to lean more toward the PG/PG-13 side than some of the explicitly graphic stuff I’ve written in the past. Being my own judge, I can’t say whether the effort is successful or not, but it certainly has been interesting to swing the pendulum the other way. If you’re interested in checking out this story, you can click the link below:
“Sleepover, or, A Taste of Happiness” [PDF will open in a new tab]
~6000 words / 19 pages DS
Summer is a busy time for many of us, but I hope that you are trying new things and exploring new worlds in your imagination. I also hope that you’ll make time to hop on over to 4amwriter.com to join in on the “Dare to Write” summer writing challenge!
What are your writing goals for this summer? Have you dared to write something new? Or, work more on something older? Let me know in the comments – it all counts!
Image attribution: Thomas Julin [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons