Neil Gaiman: the clothes make the man!

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          I’ve just read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and I highly recommend it. This week, I’ll be examining five techniques he makes use of, and the first is one he uses at the beginning of the prologue:

I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult. Today they gave me comfort of a kind. I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.

          Nowhere in the description above is the word “funeral” mentioned, but we get it. We ALSO want to know who died and who the “I” is, and we’re about to be even more confused as we see this person “pretending to be an adult” about to drive and have thoughts about his adult life:

It was only then that I realized where I was going, where I had been going all along, and I grimaced at my own foolishness. I had been driving toward a house that had not existed for decades.”

As you’ll discover if you read the book, there’s a flimsy line between past, present, and future in this fantasy, and we’re given a taste of it here, at the very beginning of the book. And now, there’s even more mystery–the main character is driving toward a house that doesn’t exist? What’s going on?

          What happens here, on the very first page, is through a solid description of the clothing the character is wearing and minimal description of where he is and what he’s up to, and a bit of confusion as to why he’s “pretending to be an adult,” mystery is created and pathos is too–we care about this character who seems a bit confused about everything and is obviously dealing with a death on top of it all.

Try this:

It’s not a funeral; it’s a New Year’s Eve party. Everyone around your main character is having a fantastic time, but show how SHE is uncomfortable in the clothes she’s wearing and the people she’s with. Something else entirely is on her mind, something that’s been bothering her all week. Write the scene.

Coming tomorrow: Gaiman’s use of THE ECHO (the echo, the echo, the echo…)

Braunstein: Contrast and time shift

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          Check out a few interesting techniques that are being combined in Sarah Braunstein’s short story, “Marjorie Lemke.” The first is that it is like she’s holding a conversation…with herself. The second is a time shift: the “selves” who are talking with each other are the person she used to be and the person she is now:

Was she a loser? Yes. Now. But then? An eight-year-old in nubby knit tights, a girl with glistening pigtails who carried a Muppets lunchbox? No. Back then she had been merely a girl. A girl with a certain open-eyed, owlish look, good posture, a knack for the Rubik’s Cube. She had not yet got her period in Algebra or made out with Len Dugan in the janitor’s closet or been fired from Rite Aid for stealing a can of Pepsi. She had not yet tripped over herself at the cheerleading tryouts and gone home to scrape the skin of her forearm with a safety pin. Bobby Miller. Keith Paulsen. Jose, who had no last name, who gave her a pill to swallow, who said, ‘Think of me as Superman,’ and took off his shirt and on whose hairless chest she saw a giant red ‘S,’ and she kissed it, full of incredulous relief, believing she had found at last the one who would perform the rescue.

Those things and people had not yet happened. Her nose was still unpierced. No butterfly tattoo above her anklebone. No snake eating its tail on her shoulder blade. No Clive. She had not yet become a pregnant nineteen-year-old. She was not yet that girl in the back of Parenting 101 being lectured by a social worker about not shaking your kids and how you got to give them whole milk and lots of vegetables–peas, carrots, zucchini–as if she needed reminding of what a vegetable was.

          The effect is that we get a very complete backstory of her in a very interesting way. We see she’s a realistic character–she has made mistakes in life–and we care about her and are cheering for her to improve her life by the end of these two paragraphs. We see the innocent child and the corrupted adult, the one who used to be ignored by others and the one who seems to ignore being used by others.

Try this:

          I’m going to give you a name. You give me two paragraphs that show me who this person is. Deal? Ok, here’s the name:


Coming tomorrow: I’ve finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and thoroughly enjoyed it! For the next five posts, I’ll be showing some of the techniques I noticed him using in that amazing story. . .

Think YOU had a bad teacher?

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          I remember some horrible instructors I’ve learned from in the past, but only the writing prof I took a class from at the University of Saskatchewan even approaches this one’s behaviour:

From “The Master,” by Marc Fisher:

Assigned to [Robert] Berman for tenth-grade English, I took a seat one September morning alongside sixteen or seventeen other boys. We waited in silence as he sat at his desk, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes and watching us from behind dark glasses. Finally, Mr. Berman stood up, above the blackboard to draw a horizontal line on the paint. “This,” he said, after a theatrical pause, “is Milton.” He let his hand fall a few inches, drew another line, and said, “This is Shakespeare.” Another line lower, on the blackboard: “This is Mahler.” And, just below, “Here is Browning.” Then he took a long drag on his cigarette, dropped the chalk to the floor, and, using the heel of his black leather loafer, ground it into the wooden floorboards. “And this, gentlemen,” he said, “is you.”

Thankfully, mine wasn’t quite this bad (Berman was a pedophile, on top of his in-your-face behaviour), but he DID ridicule me and my writing by name, with a few overheads of my work and an overhead projector, in front of a lecture theatre full of students…. In my mind, he’s a bit of a villain all the same…

Try this:

Think of one of those disastrous people you’ve had the misfortune of meeting. Change the age, gender, or appearance, and make them a villain in your next piece of poetry or prose.

Coming tomorrow: A bit of FANCY FOOTWORK involving Sarah Braunstein and the use of contrast.

Bullying, adult style… writing idea!

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          Bullying is bad enough when it happens on a playground, but when it involves ADULTS, it can get downright nasty. Take a look at this piece of Nicholas Schmidle’s article, “Bring Up the Bodies”:

According to an internal I.C.T.Y. document from 2004, Limaj’s relatives and associates launched a campaign of ‘serious intimidation of and interference with potential witnesses.’ Two men showed up at the house of one witness and warned him not to testify, adding, ‘If you make the mistake of going there, you will be dead.’ Someone called the wife of a second witness and threatened, ‘You will be liquidated.’ A third witness withdrew after a relative overheard a group of men, at a cafe in Pristina, saying of any people who testified against Limaj, ‘We will burTn them, their families, and their houses.’ A fourth witness refused to meet an I.C.T.Y. investigator, explaining that ‘he did not want to die.’ Nazim Bllaca, a former K.C.A. member, told me, ‘This is how the Limaj case ended.’

Try this:

If you don’t know what this case is, make it up. What would be so serious that garners this huge amount of coverup and intimidation? Show the scene. What about if one person DID decide to testify. Show the scene that occurs after his day in court (maybe how he avoids trouble for himself and his family? How he outwits his potential assassins?).

Coming tomorrow: You think YOU had a bad teacher? Check out this sucker punch from the article “The Master,” by Marc Fisher tomorrow…

A real-life Indiana Jones? Long starter from nonfiction…

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Talk about adventure! Here’s the beginning of a NONFICTION article, “The El Dorado Machine,” by Douglas Preston:

The rainforests of Mosquitia, which span more than thirty-two thousand square miles of Honduras and Nicaragua, are among the densest and most inhospitable in the world. “It’s mountainous,” Chas Begley, an archaeologist and expert on Honduras, told me recently. “There’s white water. There are jumping vipers, coral snakes, fer-de-lance, stinging plants, and biting insects. And then there are the illnesses–malaria, dengue fever, leishmaniasis, Chagas’.” Nevertheless, for nearly a century, archaeologists and adventurers have plunged into the region, in search of the ruins of an ancient city, built of white stone, called la Ciudad Blanca, the White City.

Rumors of the site’s existence date back at least to 1526, when, in a letter to the Spanish emperor, Charles V, the conquistador Hernan Cortes, reported hearing “reliable” information about a province in the interior of Honduras that “will exceed Mexico in riches, and equal it in the largeness of its towns and villages.” The claim was not an impossible one; the New World encountered by Europeans had wealthy cities and evidence of former splendor.

Later on in the article, we discover that through the use of technology and a flyover,

Instead of a lost city, we had found the expansive remains of an ancient civilization.

Try this:

So they found more than what they were looking for via a piece of technology that can “see” through the dense jungle and map out building sites of past civilizations. Now, tell the tale of the first group of explorers who put themselves into that jungle. Do your best Indiana Jones. What problems do they encounter? What treasures do they find? What surprises happen along the way?

Coming tomorrow: a coverup! What can you do with it?


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          In the July / August 2013 Report on Business, Eric Reguly has an article titled “STORAGE WARS,” but it’s not about the TV show where people buy abandoned storage lockers in the hopes of finding treasure. It’s actually aboput Big Oil’s reserves and what would happen to them if we stopped “burning the stuff to prevent climate catastrophe.”

          Taking something that already exists and THINKING SOMETHING DIFFERENT for it is a great way to get that creative brain jump-started . . .

Try this:

Here are 8 titles, taken from TV shows, to think something different for:

1. Pair of Kings

2. The Wonder Years

3. The X Factor

4. The Voice

5. The Game

6. V

7. The Closer

8. Bones

Write a scene you envision for one of them or write about what it might be about…and check in again tomorrow at FIGHT TO WRITE !

Coming tomorrow: A REAL Raiders of the Lost Ark situation to inspire that next action-adventure of yours! Don’t miss it…

Starter from Margaret Talbot

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          Today’s line to get you started comes from Margaret Talbot’s “Shots in the Dark,” in the April 15th, 2013 edition of The New Yorker :

What’s the worst that could happen?

Try this:

          Who’s thinking this and why? Once you decide that, go write the scene.

Coming tomorrow: A fighting 8 count that will get you thinking about TV. . .

Starter…from an ad for a tv show!

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          Today’s prompt comes from an ad for the show Maron, and it shows a tweet that’s kinda, sorta, not really sweet:

I found this article describing the 6 stages of a romantic relationship. I went thru all of them in one weekend. Her name was Jen.

Try this:

Now, it doesn’t matter if her name was Jen, or his name was Ken, or he was Ken pretending to be Jen (okay, maybe that DOES matter!)…just go ahead and write this piece of flash fiction, beginning, middle, and end! The 6 stages are whatever you choose to make them…

Coming tomorrow, on what’s quickly becoming starter week: a line from an article by Margaret Talbot that is sure to get you writing…

Starter . . . from an advertisement!

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          Today, I’m going to give you an opening line. Then, if you really want to know where it came from, follow the dots down the page. It may give you an ADDITIONAL idea to write about! The line is…

She’s first.


          These words came from an ad by the International Rescue Committee, , that helps “women and their families to survive and rebuild their lives” after “conflict or disaster.”

Coming tomorrow: ANOTHER ad starter? Can it be true? It can…

Sara Dailey #007: Circle technique

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          Ok, so it’s our final day of looking at Sara Dailey’s technique via her creative nonfiction piece, “The Memory Train.” Today it’s all about circle technique. If you look back to the first post of this week, you’ll see she began with a paragraph about Phineas Gage, a railway worker who LIVED after accidentally getting a metal rod shot through his skull and part of his brain. Then she slid into the real topic of her article–keeping memories, especially memories of her brother, and worrying about the day that the details may finally escape her. Now look at how she ends her article:

… I am left to write, document, record–to leave these words, my fictions and poetries, as a tether to tie [my brother] here. Or, perhaps, my words are but the slim metal tracks of trains, gleaming by moonlight where they are laid out in the darkness, a crosshatching of iron and wood across countryside–paths marking the way for me to follow someday.

          She circles back to the railway image, tying it to her brother in the process, wrapping up her article quite poetically. Circle technique involves more than a metaphor or a symbol that you come back to; for the reader, it’s a sign that your writing is coming to a nice, crisp finish. Very effective, to say the least.

Try this:

 For that chapter or poem or article that you’re trying to write, think of an object, some symbol that might take on added significance at the end. Use it at least at the beginning and end, and, for longer writings, you may wish to revisit it in the middle once as well. See if it adds a depth to what you’re saying, and watch for writers who use the technique effectively in their writing. You’ll start to notice it everywhere, likely in the work of your favourite authors.

Coming tomorrow: To start a new week of randomness, we’ll begin with a starter, a prompt–It’s a short one, but a good one! Tune in tomorrow…

Sara Dailey #006: Character foils–another interesting contrast for your writing

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          Character foils are two characters in the same situation who react differently. Picture two kids with an alcoholic parent. One grows up and never touches a drop of alcohol. The other becomes alcoholic.  Those are foils, and they’re another way to show contrast, just like the rhetorical questions we explored yesterday.

          Let’s see how Sara Dailey makes use of foils in a paragraph of memoir:

I was only a year older, and when we were small, we were nearly inseparable despite our many differences. I was overly cautious, the one who came up with ideas I was never willing to try out myself. I designed the parachutes for toys he launched out of windows; gauged how big a pile of leaves would need to be if he were to jump off the deck stairs without breaking anything….We were a well-organized team. Our parents eventually learned to punish us together or not at all.

          In other words, a thinker and a doer. The contrast makes the combination of the two siblings an interesting pairing to read about. Test it with your own poetry or prose…

Try this:

Think of two people who have to spend a great deal of time together (co-workers, family members, teammates), but who are very very different people. Create a conflict that highlights these differences, and write that scene!

Coming tomorrow: Our final day of our visit with Sara Dailey’s work this week. We’ll be looking at CIRCLE TECHNIQUE…see you then!

Sara Dailey #005: Rhetorical questions and contrast

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          I know what you’re thinking…POWER PUNCH? For a rhetorical question? Are you kidding me?

          But rhetorical questions are powerful because they automatically imply a CONTRAST and contrast is what makes writing interesting. What I mean is that there are usually two opposite ways of answering a question, so conflict is naturally indicated this way.

          Let’s look at a rhetorical question used by Sara Dailey in “The Memory Train”:

Why does the brain choose to remember some things and abandon others?

Try this:

Begin a paragraph by copying Dailey’s rhetorical question. Now think of a memory that a person has repressed, something very traumatic he or she would rather not think about. Then, later in life, some object or some event brings back that memory in a powerful way.


          Now let’s look at a second rhetorical question that appears later in Dailey’s article:

. . . I find that I am interested in whether or not this can work in reverse. Will it be possible someday to stimulate the hippocampus region into overdrive by altering other proteins, so that memories, like those I have of my brother, might not be lost?

Try this:

Imagine a person who is experiencing the worst effects of old age–memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s. Family and friends were EVERYTHING to this person, and now, they’re fading from memory…. Write a scene that shows the struggle.

Coming tomorrow: Day six of Dailey: FOILS!

Sara Dailey #004: Hard and soft similes

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          I was always taught that similes are gentler than metaphors. You know–use simile in a Valentine’s Day card to your girlfriend; use metaphor for your angstiest emo poetry. Clearly, Sara Dailey didn’t get that lesson. First, look at the hard-hitting simile she works into her story, “The Memory Train”:

Like the soul, a migraine is visible only through its signs–the way your vision shrinks to a pinprick and pain blooms like razor wires being strung throughout your skull, looped spools of vines winding their way through the cortical folds.

Try this:

          Use strong, figurative language to describe some other kind of pain–a heart attack, a broken bone, a broken heart.

          Now it’s not like Dailey doesn’t know how to show a soft touch with simile as well:

Like the ocean, memory is fluid. As it happens, the first memory I have is of water.

Try this:

          Write about this water memory. Was it a time you nearly drowned? Your first attempt at water skiing? A water gun fight that went horribly wrong? Your first swim lesson?

Coming tomorrow: Dailey and rhetorical questions–oh, the possibilities!

Sara Dailey week #003: Knockout idea–Use a theme!

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    What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

                                    Ecclesiastes 1:9

Now you know that if this idea is stated in the Bible, a book that’s a few thousand years old, then it’s not exactly a new idea that writers struggle with today. In fact, trying to be completely, 100% original, can lead to that greatest writer enemy of all. . .

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          Now think about this:

          How many works of fiction do you know that contain the theme Appearances may be deceiving? How about ALL of them? Where there’s conflict, there’s someone who’s not getting what he or she wants. And as we all know, conflict drives plot.

          So take the pressure off yourself, and once you do that, let’s move on and get back to our focus this week: Sara Dailey’s article, “The Memory Train.” In it, she outright states one of her themes directly:

It has led me to wonder whether we are defined by our gaps, the places within where nothing breathes or where something leaps but is not caught. Whether we are only the products of our woundings, defined by the scope of our losses.

Try this:

          Think of a character who is dealing with lack or loss. He or she feels as though something is missing, or that person has experienced some type of loss; something that was precious is now gone. Write that scene, using detailed description!

Coming tomorrow: Hard and soft similes, Sara style!

Sara Dailey week #002: Character and pathos

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          In “The Memory Train,” Sara Dailey begins by describing a man,

Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who survived after a large iron rod punctured his left frontal lobe. The bleached bone shows a jagged U above the empty hollow of the left eye’s socket, bone that never again seamlessly met other bone.

          It was a random accident, but one with very real and tragic consequences, as you may imagine. In a sentence or two, Dailey creates pathos–readers care about the person she describes. If we care about the person, about the character, then we’ll care about what happens to that person. Let’s read a bit more:

The rod…was driven through his skull with such force that upon exiting, it landed yards away. While Gage was still able to speak and physically function, the accident left him radically changed. He had trouble holding a job; he was “fitful,” restless–never fully recovered from his wounding.

          So ends the first paragraph. We encounter tragic circumstances for an average Joe, but because of the pathos created, we’ll be sure to read more.

Try this:

Write a descriptive opening paragraph (using strong, connotative language) that gives a snapshot of a person who has experienced some event that will change him or her forever.

Coming tomorrow: Day 3 of Dailey (our daily Dailey?). A knockout idea using theme!