How did you get ‘here’? And what does ‘here’ refer to?
Australia Day originally commemorated a date in 1788 when three ships sailed into what is now Sydney Harbour to found the first British colony here. Now the day is more inclusive, recognising Australian Aboriginals, whose forebears were here centuries before the ships appeared, and recent citizens and residents from many countries.
Radio producer Bellinda Lopez took her microphone, hopped on the commuter trains loaded with people going to the celebrations in Sydney’s CBD this year, and asked the question, ‘How did you get here?’
Responses fell roughly into three categories. People from an Anglo-Saxon background tended to give the station where they boarded the train. Some mentioned their forebears who arrived when Australia was still a British colony, 1778-1900. More recent citizens/residents were apt to explain how and why they immigrated to Australia. Indigenous Australians tended to mention their ancestors’ early presence.
- Do you have a story about how you ‘got here’, however you wish to interpret what ‘here’ is?
- Imagine that one day people who wish to live elsewhere can magically and instantly do so.
Would you take this opportunity? Why or why not? What if there are stipulations? E.g., perhaps once you relocate, that decision cannot be changed, or only certain people or groups are allowed this opportunity.
If people relocate, how would it affect your hometown, or some other place you choose?
Moving away from the resettling topic, the question offers so many possibilities that it is a wonderful writing prompt. Suggestions to explore.
- Create a scene that starts with one character asking another the question, ‘How did you get here?’ What happens next?
- Develop a monologue where the character responds to the question, with the focus on a particular place, time, or situation.
- Choose something from your life that is relevant to telling how you got here. Perhaps you once you found yourself in a particularly good or bad situation.
- Imagine someone—past, present future—asking you this question. How would you respond, taking into account the person and the context?
- Combine the how got here phrase with one or more of these words: anxiety, birthday, clouds, diet, east, frontier, garden, hunting, insurance, jazz, kids, luxury. What can you make of the combo?
- Emphasis. HOW did you get here? How did YOU get here? How did you get HERE
- Location. Where is ‘here’ and why is it of interest? What makes it special?
- Scope. Large (planet, country, region, city)? Medium (school, zoo, prison, holiday spot)? Small (Classroom, cell, roof of building, bedroom)?
- Situation. What’s going on, that causes this question to be asked? Is the situation something to avoid? Confront? Celebrate?
- Time. Is the ‘here’ in the future, present or past? If the past, is this hours ago, or days, months, years or centuries ?
- Mood. What ‘s the dominant mood? Nostalgic? Angry? Scary? Humorous? Is the overall effect positive or negative? Serious/reflective or light-hearted?
- Focus. What’s at the heart of the accounting for getting here? Is there a mystery? A payback? A lesson learned? A relinquishing? A reversal?
A pitch session is an event where you have a short time to talk with a number of experts in the book business—editor , agents, publishers. Whether you are planning to participate in a pitching event, or have arranged to talk with a single literary gatekeeper, you can prepare by treating it like a job interview. Most of us know about job interviews, so what can we draw upon?
Identify your immediate goal
People see a promising job ad and post their resume and cover letter. What’s their immediate goal? It is not to be offered the job. That outcome is farther down the track.
When you are talking with a literary gatekeeper about your manuscript, know what you’re shooting for. Your immediate goal is not a book contract, but an invitation to send more of your work, such as a long synopsis or a complete manuscript.
In a job hunt, cluey applicants identify how their experience and expertise connect with the requirements of the position. You can do the same by identifying how your work is relevant to the gatekeeper’s needs and interests. E.g.,
- Does my material best suit a mainstream publisher, a smaller independent one, or a specialised publisher such as a university press? Why?
- What category describes my material? E.g., young children’s lit, crime fiction, self-help?
- In my chosen category, who are the successes, the big names? How does my work fit in? How does it differ?
- What kind of readers would be attracted to my writing? And why?
Prepare for the big day
A pitch session or a talk with a literary gatekeepers differs from a job interview in one important way. If you get a job interview, the material you have sent has already communicated much about you. The panel is already interested in you and want to know more.
In a pitch session, the people you talk to usually know nothing about you and they have not specifically asked to see you. You may have only 5-10 minutes to interest them in your writing project. It’s a stress-inducing situation, so it pays to prepare.
Aim to hook your listeners, so much so that they will ask you to provide more of your material. ‘Hooking’ strategies include the following:
- Establish rapport. People are more likely to forgive minor glitches if you make a positive connection. Smile, make eye contact. Engaging in a little small-talk at the start can make you appear confident.
- Highlight your strengths and successes. Interview panels assess applicants’ experience and ability, but they also look for positive qualities—commitment, professionalism, enthusiasm. Identify your strong points, as well as concrete examples. E.g., how have you demonstrated professionalism? You may not be asked such questions, but preparing examples can help your confidence.
- Highlight your unique selling point. After you identify how your work can be categorised, it helps to point out how it differs from other works in your chosen genre or subject. Does it provide a different and valuable slant? Create a new niche or significantly expand an old one? Or is its strength that it follows a familiar pattern, such as romance fiction, and does it very well?
Provide a conceptual frame. Job applicants may use a framing device to help the interviewing panel make sense of their work history. The frame is usually a statement of their career goal, and then they write about their various jobs with this goal as their focus for what they include and exclude.
You can provide a similar frame for your writing project. Randy Ingermanson, the famed ‘snow-flake’ writing guy, suggests starting with a one-sentence summary of your material, giving the kernel of your story and focusing on one or two major characters , without using their names. His examples:
- Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone: A boy wizard begins training and must battle for his life with the Dark Lord who murdered his parents.
- Pride and Prejudice: A young English woman from a peculiar family is pursued by an arrogant and wealthy young man.
- The DaVinci Code: A Harvard symbologist and a female French cryptographer solve the puzzle of the Holy Grail in a race against death across Europe.]
After this, provide details. But remember that in this situation, less is more. Try for a maximum of five sentences.
Practise your pitch
Once you work out what you want to convey, practise it so that you are confident about what you can communicate it in the allotted time, with poise and enthusiasm.
Practising out loud what you want to say helps you sharpen your responses and get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. When I help people prepare for a job interview, I pose questions and have them respond, again out loud. Is there a friend whom you can ask to fire suitable questions at you and give feedback in terms of what you say and how?
It happens at interviews, and it may happen to you at a pitch session: You run into someone who is obnoxious or demeaning. A pitch session is short so try to remain professional and gracious.
And don’t go over to the ‘dark side’ yourself by picking an argument, not answering a direct question, interrupting, talking too much, using inappropriate humour, or getting way off track. I’ve experienced all of these no-nos from applicants when I was on interview panels, and in each case the person was not offered the job.
Diana Jenkins’ article provides a helpful account about participating in a pitch session: Nervous White Female.
A hot summer’s day here. Earlier, I was hanging out the washing. At the end of one of the Hills hoist’s metal arms I saw a gray spider, the size of a raisin. Taking a closer look, I spied an even smaller black spider, about the size of the head of a pin. I was thinking that the bigger one was probably the parent, when suddenly it snatched the little one. Not parent after all, but predator.
Much in life is not what it seems. The spider in the above photo may look vicious to some, but in reality it is the harmless Huntsman. Illusion as a writing prompt offers many possibilities. Start with the phrase Not What it Seems or It Was Not What It Seemed and see what you come up with. Some ideas to get you started.
Look into your past
If you tend to write personal accounts, look into your past. Did someone or something—a social group, political or social ideal, way of life, leisure activity, job, lover, teacher, music group, habit—turn out to be very different from you first thought or expected? In what way? What happened as a result?
Sometimes we do not understand the currents of ‘not what it seems’ until weeks, months, even years later. Here’s a famous quote, ascribed (probably incorrectly) to Mark Twain:
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
Use an example from your life.
Try the present tense
Apply the prompt to something in your present life. Is the ‘not what it seems’ primarily humorous? Poignant? Or . . . ?
Go beyond the personal
Consider what is not what it seems in your world—politically, socially, ethically. Perhaps select a major issue, such as global warming, refugees, conservation. Or something local or particular to a specific group. Is it tragedy or comedy? Or something else again?
Get into make-believe
Fictional stories often rely on change, something turns out not to be what it at first seemed. Whodunnits have red herrings. Sci-fi often subverts expectations. In the classic Day of the Triffids, the triffid plants, originally considered to be odd but harmless garden plants, turn out to be killers.
Is the ‘not as it seems’ element in your story an invitation, holiday, gift, promise? Does a relationship change? Or perhaps a character shifts in terms of their appearance, habits, likes and dislikes, or their sense of what’s right and wrong.
Even fairy tales can be subverted to show an alternative. What if it is the three pigs who are the tormenters? What is Goldilocks, now a grown-up, overbearing TV host of a house renovations program, sets out to completely change the three bears’ home?
- Find your poetry muse
Writing in poetic form is a fun way to respond to a prompt. Perhaps focus on a single item: incident, season, relationship, or an object that is not what it seems. Or try a list poem, throwing in lots of elements that fit this topic. Or try a different perspective, keepint to the ‘not what it seems’ topic but putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, e.g. a head of a country, teenager, helper in an aged care centre, petty thief.Set your thoughts out in poetic form, however you define this. And remember, it does not need to rhyme.
Having trouble thinking up writing prompts? I recently discovered that WordPress has a free e-book of writing prompts for each day in 2014.
The prompts were put together to give bloggers new ideas for their posts. Most are simple, and sometimes simple is better. After all, a prompt is simply a launching pad. And there are no rules so if a prompt doesn’t appeal, you can rejig it into something that does get your creative juices flowing.
I’ve listed three of the prompts from January, and suggested some ways to explore them in writing.
KICK IT: What’s the 11th item on your bucket list?
We’re bombarded with superlatives, so I was entranced about considering something that is only mildly interesting in my life. Not a ‘must‘ (as in must do, must see, must hear, must visit) but more of a ‘yeah, probably’. What would you pick? Why?
An alternative is to slip something onto your bucket list after the fact. The Wizard of Oz museum in Wamego Ks was not on my list but given that I was driving through, I stopped there for a break. I enjoyed the displays and remembered how scary the movie was when I was little. As a prompt, the movie could lead to writing about childhood fears, perseverance, good and evil, being recognised for one’s good traits, or about a time when you did not know you had already the means or path to achieve something you longed for. I bought one souvenir, a folder showing the wicked witch, threatening Don’t make me get the flying monkeys. I’m not sure where that would lead as a prompt!
QUOTE ME: Do you have a favorite quote that you return to again and again? What is it and why does it move you?
Quotation prompts are useful because there are various ways to use them. You can reflect on its truth generally or, getting more personal, apply it to your life. You can start or end a poem or story with the quote, or use part of it in your title. Rather than using a direct quote, you can draw on its sentiment or message.
How would you start with one of these quotes, from the late author David Foster Wallace?
The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.
Try to learn to let what is unfair teach you.
Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.
Acceptance is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.
CALL ME ISHMAEL: Take as your starter the first sentence from a favorite book.
A first sentence—from any source—can lead you down some unusual writing paths, whether you are freewriting or exploring via a particular writing form, such as a story, poem, essay, meditation, or reminiscence. Where could these sentences take you? They are from an essay collection I’m currently reading (A Country Too Far, edited by Rosie Scott and Tom Keneally).
* Afloat on the empty night it is the sea itself that amazes him.
* Early on the morning of the final day, you are ready to leave.
* He cannot sleep.
* She says to me, ‘Tell me everything. Tell me what happened.’
All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.
˜Henry Ellis, psychologist
This quote works well as a writing prompt, both for fiction or nonfiction.
Perhaps it is because we have all experienced bouts of letting go and holding on in terms of issues and beliefs, likes and dislikes, in our relationships, activities and passions.
Sometimes the outcome of holding on or letting go is positive. Sometimes it is not. If the holding on or letting go is a deliberate decision, we may be clear about our rationale. In another situation, years may go by before we understand or perhaps acknowledge our choice. In some cases, the choice remains a puzzle, with no answer forthcoming.
Fine mingling suggests that the good life consists of balancing: Don’t let go of too much; don’t hold on beyond what is realistic. But in writing, things are different. It is the imbalance—of a character, a situation—that attracts us as readers and viewers and keeps us involved.
General writing starters
Explore the concepts of letting go and/or holding on. See where your creative mind takes you. Suggestions:
- Freewrite for 10 minutes or more, letting your mind play with one or both terms. Don’t restrict yourself. Write down whatever comes up, no matter how odd.
- Brainstorm about possible ideas for a story or article. What was or could be let go? Held onto?
A person? A memory? An activity? An emotion? An object? What pluses and minuses are involved?
- Develop a scene, imagined or real, about one or both elements. What happens and why? Who is affected? What’s the outcome?
- Consider a specific person, incident, or place—past or present, real or imaginary—that is linked in some way to letting go or holding on. Consider other elements that may be driving the action, such as ambition, responsibility, fate, pain.
- Choose a particular person, incident or place—past or present, real or imaginary—that for you embodies letting go or holding on. Is the outcome positive, negative, or mixed? Why? Does anything unexpected eventuate? If so, how does this affect things?
Flesh out any interesting results by considering these questions:
- Who or what is involved?
- What’s so special about this particular act of letting go or holding on?
- What’s the motivation?
- Setting? Occasion? Location?
- Does it take place in the present, past or future? Time period? Duration?
- What is the dominant mood, e.g., comical, bittersweet, nostalgic, creepy?
For life writing
If you are drawing on your own life for this prompt, here are some additional questions.
- What have I let go of or held onto in the past? Why? What has been the outcome? Was it my choice?
- At this point, what could I let go of? Hold onto? Why? What would possibly change as a result?
- Have I ever made an exchange? Letting go in some way in order to achieve a holding on in another way? Or the opposite, choosing to hold on to achieve a letting go?
The outcome? If it was some time ago, what do I think about it now?
At this point in my life, or in the future, what would make me consider an exchange? What could be a possible or probable outcome?
- Do I tend to let go more than I hold on? Or the opposite? What’s that all about? What is the effect on me? On others?
We seldom realize . . . that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.
The power of our cultural lens
The term cultural lens refers to our culture-based perspective, which helps us make sense of what we experience, both directly and indirectly, e.g., via movies, books, computer games.
The above quote identifies culture’s strong effect on writers and their material. How easily readers connect with our writing depends in part on the extent that their cultural lens matches ours.
Cultural difference between writers and their readers or viewers can be a minefield. Our cultural perspective leads us to accept one fictive world as intimately familiar, another as more distant, and another as strange, even incomprehensible. I once read a non-western whodunnit, where the baddie’s modus operandi turned out to be voodoo. It was presented as a plausible explanation. But because voodoo is beyond my mental schema about what is realistic in my culture, I found the story unsatisfying.
Humour writer, Garrison Keillor, drew on his Midwestern background to write stories about the mythical Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon. I found his tales delightful— and familiar. Having grown up in the Midwest, I understood his characters’ ways of thinking, talking and acting. These ways were in my enculturated blood. His stories were also popular in Australia, presented on the radio show, Prairie Home Companion. But because of my cultural background, I picked up more nuances and references than most Aussie listeners.
Our cultural lens can affect a number of writing choices: setting, plot, characters. We can choose elements that fit our culture’s familiar social ‘rules’ and values. We draw on what’s familiar in our culture or sub-culture when we select story elements such cause and effect, relevant actions, and characters’ speech patterns and non-verbal communication.
Or we can do the reverse, consciously subverting our culture’s norms. For example, we may develop characters as ones who do not follow the usual cultural blueprint in terms of their gender, age, education, or profession.
When we watch a film or read a book from a culture alien to our own, we may feel lost. Even if we can follow the what of the story—its action—we may find it difficult know the why that underpins and makes sense of the action. For anyone interested in such cultural differences in storytelling, I recommend the essay, Shakespeare in the Bush. An anthropologist relates the story of Hamlet to a group of African tribal elders. Using their cultural lens, they provide an enchantingly different interpretation.
Tell not show? Show not tell?
Culture also affects less obvious writing choices. One is the amount of telling. In modern western culture, writers are often instructed to show, don’t tell. Rather than telling readers what a character feels—Mary was angry—it is considered better to give an action: Mary slammed the door so hard the glass panel shattered.
But the telling taboo is not universal. In a culture with a rich oral tradition, written stories may focus on telling. Actions may be surrounded, even overwhelmed, by commentary, admonishment, foreshadowing, interpretation.
The next time you dig into another culture as a reader or viewer, consider the cultural forces at work. Doing so may give you a new perspective on your own writing, plus some new ideas to play with.
Bohannan, Laura. Shakespeare in the Bush. http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1966_08-09_pick.html. Accessed 20 Nov 2013. © Marsha Durham, WritingCompanion blog.
Do you have a collection of blank writing journals? Are they s00o beautiful that you have never written in them?
While cleaning out my filing cabinet today, I came across a forgotten book on journal writing, Stephanie Dowrick’s Living Words: Journal writing for self-discovery, insight & creativity. (Viking Press, 2003). Each chapter includes lined pages, for writing responses to prompts. The book was provided when I attended Dowrick’s one-day journaling workshop, which was hugely popular and mainly attracted women.
For me, the day’s take-home message was: When you write, honour messiness, honesty, and serious intent.
Most of the participants would probably have agreed about first drafts being messy, plus the advantages of honesty. But the idea of honouring our intent as storytellers? An interesting twist that day suggested that this aspect may be harder to understand and achieve.
When Stephanie asked us to undertake an exercise in her book, many people put it to one side and instead started to write on whatever they had brought along with them, such as their notebook or some sheets of paper. When she suggested using the writing space in her book, people looked uneasy. One protested that she wanted to ‘save’ the book, that it was ‘too good’ to write in.
Writing in a published book is usually a no-no. But the reluctance I sensed in the room could have been due to a different kind of trespass, that of inserting one’s ‘inferior’ writing into a ‘real’ (published) book, and as well, one created by a well-known, successful author. I decided I wouldn’t keep her book pristine but make it MINE, using it to explore–messily, honestly–myself and my writing.
Now, some years later, as I look through her/my book, I see I have scribbled in brown, turquoise and black ink. Little is crossed out. Sentences and paragraphs jostle with dot points and diagrams. The pages are stuffed with other sheets of writings–lists of authors, books read, letters from friends, and even my entry pass to a memorable and life-changing bushwalk in remote Kakadu National Park.
Although at first it felt strange to write my ideas in this serious book, I soon came to enjoy using Stephanie’s prompts as a jumping off point into creativity, writing much more than I expected, even using the margins when I needed extra space.
If I’d saved the book, keeping it pristine while using a notebook to respond to the prompts, I’m not sure I would have felt so attuned to them. And writing in such a lovely book helped me honour my ideas and identify a serious intent to write and explore.
If you have unused journals, why not start writing in them? Even if you write your stories on the computer, you can still find a use for blank pages. Some people turn to them for their freewriting, believing that writing their first ideas by hand is best. I like to fill them with whatever captures my attention: poems, quotations, odd phrases, plus unusual photos and pictures, headlines, news articles, and names.
Whatever you do, don’t think about not using the journals. Left unopened, unused, they are simply negative energy—and who needs that?