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Everybody has a secret, one thing that they’ve been too embarrassed, too ashamed, too shy, or too afraid to tell anybody else.  Secrets are gold mines for writers; name five novels, and I’ll bet you that at least four of them are based, in part, on someone keeping a secret from somebody else.

There’s a lovely site that you may have visited called PostSecret; anonymous individuals write a secret on a postcard, and send it to be posted on the website.

It’s a treasure trove for writers wanting to generate material; often, the sender doesn’t reveal anything about his or her situation, just tells the bare bones of the secret, and leaves the rest up to the reader.  A few that I find especially intriguing are here, here and here.

Take a look at the site today.  Choose a secret, and write about the situation that might have given birth to it.

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Photo by Jason Scragz

Photo by Jason Scragz

From ear piercing to tattoos to plastic surgery to scarification, body modification has long played a significant role in worldwide culture, and still does today. It’s a nearly universal practice; historically, tattooing, scarring, piercing and the like have been used to mark rites of passage, to enhance beauty, to denote tribal or other affiliations, for spiritual reasons, and, especially in current Western culture, for self-expression and even shock value. On the other hand, body modification is still a taboo in many circles. To some, any kind of body modification that isn’t medically necessary is considered a desecration, a dishonoring of the sanctity of the body. In short, a form of self-mutilation. And, of course, there’s a wide range of opinion and feeling on the matter.

Considering the long and widespread history of body modification, and its cultural significance, this should be a fertile area to explore in fiction, especially for speculative fiction writers. Do the people who inhabit your worlds modify themselves? How? Why? Is modification a subculture or counterculture? Or is the absence of modification uncommon?

If you write contemporary mainstream fiction, consider your characters’ attitudes toward modification. Do your characters practice any sort of modification? What are their attitudes toward the common types of modification, such as piercings or tattoos? Are they likely to encounter the more uncommon types, such as scarification? What would their attitudes to such kinds of modification be?

For further reading:

The Shame of Writing

Once in a while, admitting that I’m an aspiring writer makes me feel ashamed. It doesn’t happen often; most of the time, I’m proud to own my ambitions and my hopes.  But sometimes, especially with family, I feel that my hopes are unrealistic, pipe-dreams, and that I should grow up and do something more productive with my life.

I spent last weekend in the Black Hills, where I grew up, at my parents’ home.  It was a fairly nice visit; the scenery is lovely, and the smell of the pine trees is what always comes to mind when I think of “home.”  My parents, though, while they are lovely people, are so different from me that I sometimes wonder how they managed to produce me.  They are extremely conservative, not particularly well-read, and their love of art and literature stops at Thomas Kincaid and Louis L’Amour.  It isn’t snobbery that prompts me to point this out; it’s just one of many examples of the ways in which we are different.

They asked me, over breakfast on the morning I was leaving, what my plans were for the fall.  I work part-time as a writing and ESL tutor at a state university, and I’m planning to start work on my master’s degree; I mentioned that I would be taking some classes, as well as continue to write.

My mother asked me, “Don’t you think it’s time to think about getting a full-time job?”

I said no.  I told them about the writing grants that I’m applying for, the magazines and journals that I’m sending stories to, and I talked a little about my unfinished novel.  I said that as long as working part-time was adequate, along with my husband’s salary, that I would continue to write as much as I could.

My father told me it was time for me to grow up, to stop putting such a heavy burden on my husband’s shoulders.  My sister, who had stayed out of the conversation until then, nodded, and said that her ex-husband would never have let her take advantage of him like that.

I didn’t know how to reply.  So I left the room, and went into the woods with my notebook and my pen.

Ah, the Tarot. Images from movies and TV and books, of a Bohemian or mystical individual, laying

Robin Wood Tarot, magician

Robin Wood Tarot, Magician

cards out in an arcane pattern, telling us how our lives will progress, whether we will find love or win the lottery.

There’s both more and less to the Tarot than that; basically, it’s a series of cards with artwork depicting images of archetypes. Which is, of course, why they’re popular, and why they seem to apply to everyone’s lives. We won’t get into how, why, or whether the cards work on a personal level, though; we’re going to examine how Tarot can be used in fiction writing.

Because the Tarot are archetypal, they depict issues, traits and situations that are nearly universal.

Rider Waite Tarot, Fool

Take the Fool, for instance. The card shows a young man without a care in the world, with his head in the clouds, totally unaware that he’s about to step off of a cliff, and unheeding of the dog yapping about his feet, trying to warn him of his danger.

Who hasn’t been in this situation? We’ve all had moments of youthful foolishness, not knowing or not caring that there’s danger at our feet. Rather, we’ve been too wrapped up in the idea of adventure or love to notice any warnings the people and the world around us have given.

Each card of the Tarot is like this: each depicts a universal character, trait or situation. In fact, one view of the Tarot is that it is an outline of the Hero’s Journey, beginning with the Fool as the Call to Adventure, and ending with the World as the Hero’s Return. As such, the Tarot makes a very handy tool for writers. It can help generate material, or it can help flesh out existing stories.

Try this today: go to a free Tarot reading website, such as Facade, and choose a one-card reading. Read what the card means, and write. Let the card be a springboard for a warm-up or for a new story, and freewrite for ten minutes or so.

Soon to come: Using the Tarot to create characters.

If you find this post interesting, you might also want to check out the following blogs and websites:

One of the best ways for a fiction writer to build up a portfolio and land the all-important agent is to write and publish short stories; a history of published material proves to your potential agent that you’re committed, that markets have found your work to be of value, and that you can follow through. But if you’re a novel writer by inclination or by practice, writing shorter material can present quite a challenge. How does one go about writing a tight, effective short story?

1. Know what you want to say. What is your story about? I don’t mean plot; what is the theme, or the main point of your story? What does your character learn? Knowing this in advance can help you keep from digressing down entertaining, but ultimately ineffective, paths.

2. Know your conflict. Before you sit down to write the text of your story, it’s good to know the main problem the protagonist has to solve to reach the end. Not knowing this can cause all sorts if diversions and wandering about.

3. One story, one plot. There isn’t room in a short story for much in the way of a subplot. Most effective short stories focus on only one conflict.

4. One story, one protagonist. Just as there isn’t room in short fiction for more than one conflict, there usually isn’t room for more than one main character. Your character can have friends and enemies, of course, but they usually serve as foils, as sounding-boards, as help, etc. for your main character.

5. Watch the time. Most short stories cover very short periods of time. If your conflict needs more than a couple of days to reach its resolution, chances are that you’ve got a novel on your hands, rather than a shorter piece.

6. Start at the last minute. No, I don’t mean that you should procrastinate. Start your story as close to the end as possible. Don’t waste time, space or words on a lot of backstory or setup; rather, dive headfirst into the conflict, as close to the climax as you possibly can.

7. Write in one sitting. If you write the first draft of your story in one straight shot, rather than in chunks, you’re less likely to overthink your story and wander away on one of those interesting digressions I mentioned earlier. Writing it all at once can also keep the energy of the story high, and the tone and voice consistent.

8. Have a plan. Lots of writers don’t like making outlines–I’m one of them. But when I sit down to write a short story, I need to at least know how the story will end; this keeps the story moving forward on a straight path, without wordy digressions.

9. Be merciless. The short story form, in my opinion, sharpens conflict because there is so little room for all of the events on the sidelines which can soften it. Take advantage of the form; pull no punches. Don’t waste verbage on being nice to your character.

10. Edit mercilessly. Just as there is no room in the short story for digressions, there is no room for padding. Anything that does not further your plot should be thrown away. Save those lovely descriptions of the summer’s day for something else, unless they give some crucial piece of information or tone to your reader. If something is not vital to your story, it weakens it.

My computer died a couple of days ago.  Well, it didn’t completely die, but the video card did.  I didn’t lose any data; I just can’t see any of it.  Fortunately, my father-in-law owns a computer store and loaned me one until I can replace it.

For the two nights I didn’t have a computer, I felt like I’d lost a limb.  I sort of wandered around the house, not knowing quite what to do with myself.  I didn’t realize that the technology I’d thought of as simply another useful tool had come to play such a huge part in my life. 

I started thinking about technology, then in relation to writing.  Of course, technology plays a huge part in a lot of speculative fiction, whether in the highly advanced technology of futuristic science fiction, or the alternative technologies of secondary-world fantasy.  But technology doesn’t have to be vastly different from what we use now and today for it to be significant in fiction writing.

In what ways do your characters use current technology?  What roles does technology play in their lives?  How much of your plot and setting depends on it?  What happens if the technology they depend on doesn’t work?

If you could tweak one piece of existing technology to better suit your needs or desires, what would you do?  How would it affect other people’s lives?  If you could invent something that doesn’t currently exist, what would you create?  How would it change your life?  Your family’s life?  Your city, or your nation, or the world?

Most of the writers I love have one thing in common: exquisite use of language.  Neil Gaiman’s words are razor-edged, as are Connie Willis’, Guy Gavriel Kay is fluid and lyrical, and reading Patricia McKillip is like falling into music.  Their styles, though, are very distinct, and there are elements of each of them that I’d like to emulate.

Students of visual art use master studies in order to study technique, color, etc.  So why shouldn’t writers?

I start by choosing a passage that I find particularly good in its use of language  Nothing too long, just a paragraph, or maybe two.  I read the passage a couple of times, and then I copy it out, preferably by hand, rather than on the computer.  Writing with a pen on paper gives me time to notice the texture of the words, the sounds, the rhythm of the author’s words.  I pay attention to sentence structure, metaphors, descriptors, everything that makes that particular author’s style unique.

And then, when I’ve finished copying the text by hand, I go to my computer and write.  Again, I don’t go for anything too long, just a paragraph or two, and try to incorporate those techniques into my own writing.

A logical drawback of this technique is that it could produce writing that is derivative, not at all original.  But if you try it with several authors’ work, the styles eventually combine in your own, mixing and meshing together into something entirely unique, entirely yours.