Rivals, Villains, and Nemeses

VillainFond Husband and I were talking the other night about antagonists. We’re both way into speculative fiction, but our tastes can vary pretty widely on what we like and don’t like. Therefore, I wasn’t too shocked when I learned that he doesn’t like a sympathetic villain. Personally, I love it when I feel like I can understand the bad guy, when I know exactly why they are the way they are and feel like maybe, just maybe, I could have walked that same path in those same shoes. (Note: I am not a sociopath. Honest.)

One thing we did agree on, though? Neither of us likes it when the antagonist is just contrary to be contrary. The mustache twirling villain tossing hapless maidens onto train tracks for the heck of it isn’t really our thing. Evil for evil’s sake is kind of lame. (And just to be clear, we’re talking about physical antagonists, not abstract ones. None of this really applies as well for a storm, or racism, or whatever.)

So I sat down after our chat and wrote up a list of the things that I feel like every believable antagonist needs, regardless of whether or not we can sympathize.

Background A protagonist can’t exist in a vacuum; neither can the antagonist. What made them this way? How did they get where they are? Just as a protagonist’s background sets the stage for them, so does an antagonist’s.

Personality Every character in a story should have a unique voice, little ticks and quirks and patterns that make them their own person, rather than just another place holder. I feel like this is especially important in the main characters, which I would definitely count the antagonist as.

Motivation This is huge huge huge for me. The antagonist must have an understandable goal. Even if it’s just to stay in power, despite the efforts of this punk protagonist, I have to know why the villain does what they do for me to feel like this is a real character. Cardboard does not have motives. Characters do. I feel like this is especially important in cases where the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil, like when the Lawful Good cop is trying to arrest the sketchy-but-heart-of-gold protagonist or whatever.

Menace This probably doesn’t really need to be said, but let’s say it anyway. An antagonist should be menacing. Readers should harbor some serious fear that the antagonist is going to really mess things up for our beloved protagonist, whether that’s ruining prom or enslaving humanity. Within the context of the story, stakes need to be high, and it needs to look like the antagonist just may tip them in their favor.

Power A power imbalance must exist between the antagonist and the protagonist in order for the protagonist to go through the kind of struggle that makes a good story. The story’s bad guy should stand on a higher power rung in some way (wealth, an army, powerful connections, whatevs), but on the other hand, they don’t need to be some über-powered demigod. Therefore, they also need…

Weaknesses Sauron’s tether to the Ring. Swarm’s entirely understandable difficulty with insecticides. The Emperor’s acceptance of a Death Star that has a design flaw you could fly an X-Wing through. If a powerful antagonist doesn’t have a weakness, it can make any ending where they lose feel implausible, and therefore a cheap plot push on the author’s part. So give your antagonist a weakness that is believable given their background, not so outrageous that they wouldn’t have taken care of it, and just enough of an edge that your protagonist can use it.

In closing, do you notice anything about this list? It’s pretty similar to the sorts of things that go into making a protagonist. In a lot of ways, the villain of the story is a lot like the hero; the two can be the flipsides of the same coin, even at times sharing remarkably similar features, but having simply made different choices. Because, after all, the antagonist is the hero in their own story.

Of course, there’s a lot more that can go into the crafting of a believable antagonist, but this is hopefully enough to get you started on a shiver-worthy baddie.  Happy writing!

 

Wanna dive deeper? Here are a few links to other articles about antagonists! Enjoy!

Ken Miyamoto’s 15 Types of Villains Screenwriters Need to Know– all about the different tropes that most evil-doers fall under

Literary Device’s Antagonist– terms and definitions within the broad umbrella of, you guessed it, antagonists

Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things You Should Know about Antagonists– it’s, uh, what the title says it is

Conference Lessons: Character Creation

character

Sketch by Diane Wu

One of the last sessions I attended at last year’s conference was taught by author Robert Dugoni.  He taught us about crafting characters in his presentation, Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters.

He opened with this idea: “Whatever your character is, make them like everyone else, but a little bit better.”  So characters should be real (and relatable), but also larger than life.  We must believe them and believe in them.  If readers don’t believe the character is able to do the extraordinary things they must do, they won’t care whether your character makes it or not, or just won’t believe it when they do.

While building up an interesting character, think about their strengths, inner conflicts, and weaknesses.

A character’s strengths can be physical (muscles, speed, laser eyes, etc), mental (humor, a knack for lateral thinking, mind reading, etc), or moral (loyalty, a sense of justice, compassion, etc).  As with all  things, there’s room for overlap, so don’t stress categories. (Is resilience mental or moral? Is the ability to perform magic a physical trait or a mental one?  Who cares?)  Whatever you choose, make your characters’ strengths just a little bit stronger than average.  And be sure that these strengths come up throughout the difficulties that your characters encounter.

Consider as well the inner conflicts that plague your character.  These are different from the conflicts that the antagonist or the plot inflict on them, and from the internal conflicts that arise throughout the story.  (This caused a bit of confusion for me during the presentation at first.  I kind of wish he’d used a more dissimilar term, but I figured out what he was talking about eventually.)  Inner conflicts are things like anxiety, addiction, insecurity, low self esteem, a huge ego, phobias, or guilt.

By Mr. Dugoni’s definition, an inner conflict is not the same thing as a weakness.  A weakness is something you can fix, but for whatever reason, you don’t.  Inner conflicts are a part of who you are.  For example, your character may learn some better coping mechanisms for dealing with their depression, without ever being ‘cured’.  Mental illness is an inner conflict.  A refusal to wash the laundry until you’re out of underwear is a weakness.  (I am weak.)

Also, characters must have what Mr. Dugoni called ‘self regard’.  Self regard is recognition of one’s own shortcomings.  Plus, it makes their development more plausible.  A character who doesn’t realize they’re a misogynist isn’t going to change.  If you don’t realize there’s a problem, you can’t fix it.

So now that you have this cool character, how to you show all these traits to the reader without telling?  Mr. Dugoni specified these five ways:

Physical Appearance  A character’s physical appearance changes how they interact with the world.  When learning about this aspect of character, I immediately thought of CM Schofield’s character Tony (who is a tiny fairy in a human world) and Madison Dusome’s character Adrien (who is a skinny, scrappy one-armed orphan).  Both these authors are fantastic at showing their characters’ personalities and strengths through the lens of their physical differences.

How They Dress  People wear what they wear for a reason, and these sorts of details tell us something about them.  So think about how your character might express themselves through dress.  I also like to consider makeup, piercings, tattoos, anything unnatural that a person chooses to add to their body.  Do they wear their uniform even on their days off?  Do they favor Gothic Lolita?  Leather and spikes all week, and an airy dress for church on Sundays?  Think about what they wear, understanding that your readers will be forming ideas about why they wear it.

Physical Behavior  Think also about the way your character carries themselves.  How do they sit, stand, walk, or run?  Stance and cadence can tell us a lot about a character, like the difference between James Bonds’ cool, one-hand-in-pocket smirk and Steve Urkels’ bespectacled, face-scrunching squint.  Whenever your character guffaws, slouches, sneers, or pops a knuckle, it tells readers something.

Dialog  How does your character speak?  What does their diction say about their past and experiences?  Consider word choice, phrases, accent.  Even topic choices can tell us something about characters- for example, think about the Lego Movie and the differences in voice between Batman (gravelly, growly tone and an insistence on trumpeting his own awesomeness) and Unikitty (high, cheerful tone and a refusal to hold an unhappy thought).

Character Insight  Each of us sees the world through a different lens, a lens which is carved and polished by our past experiences.  How does your character view the world?  Who do they vote for?  What do they believe in?  What do they argue about?  What’s worth fighting for?

Use all of these cues to show readers your character, and what’s going on in their head.

So!  Once you have a realistic, believable, and interesting character, toss them into the shark tank of your story.  How does the character change over the course of the events?  Mr. Dugoni talked about change as the different levels a character starts at and finishes at.  I pictured it like this:

CaringLevels

The important thing is that the level your character is on changes over the course of the book.  If your character starts out only caring about themselves, they’d better open up a bit more by the end of the book.  Characters that don’t change levels probably aren’t changing much elsewhere either, and that’s boring and unrealistic.

Of course, characters can change in both directions.  Just as a character can start out only caring about their mom and their cat, and eventually become the hometown hero, a person can also move in a more selfish direction.  But Mr. Dugoni warns that that’s a hard sell.  Most people don’t want to read a story about a caring, generous person who becomes a self-absorbed miser.

Whoever your character may be- a priest, a mobster, the baker from Belle’s hometown- create them in a way that makes them leap off the page (or pounce, or trip, or however they move).  Make them interesting, make them realistic, and make them powerful and flawed and changing.  Your story (and your readers) will thank you.

Happy writing!

Unhappily Ever After

endingsI’m always prowling around for new books to read and a few of my friends (okay, basically all of my friends) are continually horrified that an incurable bibliophile such as myself hasn’t so much as read the back cover of Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

My friend Anna has been particularly insistent, but a few conversations about it ago (it comes up a lot) she admitted that she didn’t like the way the series ended.  Given how much she raves about these books, I was a little shocked.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “What didn’t you like about it?”

Taking pains to avoid spoilers (isn’t she sweet?), she said didn’t like “the amount of closure”.

Well, what does that mean?  Plot holes?

No, not really.  She didn’t like where the characters ended up.

Huh?

“I am very much a happy ending type person,” she finally said, explaining that she understood the author’s choices, but didn’t like them.  “I’m supposed to feel triumphant, and there was no real victorious feeling.”

As curious as I instantly felt about how the Divergent series ends, that got me thinking about book endings in general.  Sometimes, we go into a book knowing it’s not going to end happily ever after, like the wonderful Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, which unsurprisingly made me bawl my eyes out.  Sometimes, the bitter end is shocking, like the first time I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  And unhappy endings are certainly not a new phenomenon (see The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Scarlet Letter, and like half of Shakespeare for just a few gut-kickers).

So what was it about knowing the Divergent series ends unhappily that makes me want to read it?  What is it that is so compelling about unhappy endings?

While I admit that not all unhappy endings work for me, there are a lot of features that seem to show up in unhappy endings that I find much more interesting than neat and tidy everyone-gets-what-they-wanted endings.

Endings that aren’t all happy-happy are often just more realistic.  I love an ending that I didn’t see coming, but that still makes total and perfect sense.  The girl doesn’t have to get the guy; the MC doesn’t have to defeat his every last demon; the protagonist doesn’t have to win, even.  But the ending has to be one that I can think, Yeah, that would totally happen like this.

Reality aside, sometimes I just find sadness more emotionally interesting than happily ever after, which probably says a lot about me.  Likewise, unhappy endings are more memorable.  Humans are evolved to remember pain better than pleasure; we cling to our failures more than our triumphs.  Likewise, I find that stories with a bit of bitterness at the end stick with me longer.  And while it’s all fine and dandy when the average, doesn’t-think-she’s-pretty everygirl manages to defeat the bad guys, make the world a better place, and take her pick between two equally hot and devoted studmuffins, it all starts to run together a bit, you know?

This isn’t all to say that I just automatically love an unhappy ending.  (I’m looking at you, His Dark Materials.)  There are plenty of things that can ruin an ending, happy or otherwise, catapulting it straight to just plain bad.

As mentioned earlier, an ending has to be realistic.  I mean, I love Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, but it has always irked me (even nearly twenty years after my first reading) that the romance problem at the end is so neatly fixed up out of nowhere on like the last page.  It’s too easy, you know?  As readers, we’re usually not picking up a book get another hefty dose of reality, but when a happily ever after is just handed to characters, it cheapens the rest of the struggle, somehow.

Another thing that drives me nuts is when characters are suddenly and radically… not in character.  I’m actually guilty of this myself in an early draft of one of my novels.  The main character was an honest and principled guy throughout the entire book, and then threw his values to the wind for the last chapter to become a lying, backstabbing jerk.  Why?  Because following plot points was more important to me than following character.  Don’t do this, guys.

And while we’re not doing things, here’s something you should do- do wrap up all your major subplots.  I mean, you don’t have to tie up every teeny weeny loose end and let us know where every character is going to be twenty years from now (*glares at Harry Potter*), but the more an author mentions and hints at a thing, the more important it is.  Into the Woods was really interesting, and the conclusion was realistic and unhappy and in character and all that good stuff, but a pretty darned major question mark was still dangling on the last page and to this day, I want to shake the author and demand, “What the heck happened to those kids he’s been having nightmares about for the last thirty years??”  I know having everything wrap up at the end isn’t necessarily realistic, but if I’ve had to read about it at least five times throughout the book, I think I can expect some kind of conclusion.

But even worse than dangling subplots is pointlessness.  Going back in time to before the adventure starts, exposing at the end that the whole thing was some kind of game simulation, a.k.a. anything that negates the story itself- these all drive me batty.  Again, with another book I love, Alice in Wonderland just about killed me [spoiler alert have you seriously not read this book yet go read it right now then come back] when Alice woke up from her nice nap, the whole thing having been a dream.  All that development, all that peril, all that plot, for naught.  Good morning, sunshine!  That was pointless.

So I guess this is all to say… realistic, in character, conclusive, and meaningful endings that aren’t necessarily super-saccharine happy?  Bring it on.  Maybe I’ll pick up Divergent after I finish Brown Girl Dreaming (which is beautiful, you should read it).

What about you guys?  Any endings that you loved or hated?  Any endings mentioned here that you think I’ve maligned that you think were perfect?  Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading!

Tips for Writing Sans Muse

Picture credit: The Bold and the Fabulous https://boldandfab.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/uninspired-spaces/Do you ever feel… not super inspired?  I understand.  (Evidence: that first sentence.)  As I type, there is a five year old with a wad of play-do chattering (seemingly without pausing for breath) about the merits of fiskars safety scissors.  It’s kinda hard to work through.

Distractions come in many forms, some more lovable than others.  The trouble with distractions, though, is that you’re never really without them.  There will always be noises, interactions, hunger, worries, and the days when you just don’t feel like writing.  This is perfectly normal.  And while it’s totally fine to take a break once in a while, a short break can quickly turn into a weeks or even months long hiatus.  Those can be pretty hard to break once the writing habit is lost.

Here are some things you can do to wake that brain up when you need to write, but your muse is nowhere to be found.

Refreshing Things

  • Go for a walk with an eye to setting.  Think about where your characters live and what it’s like there.
  • Read part of a book and take notes about things you like/dislike.  Read like a critic and think about how those lessons can be applied to your own writing.
  • Go to a party, the library, some social setting, and strike up a conversation with a stranger.  Imagine that person is suddenly thrust into the plot of your book and imagine how they would fare.
  • Choose a hobby of one of your characters and immerse yourself in it for a few hours.  Get in your character’s head.
  • Take a wicked long shower (or bath or do dishes or whatever relaxes you) and just relax.  Mull over whatever you’re working on.  (I literally sit on the floor of the shower for more time each week than I’m prepared to admit.)
  • If you’re really frustrated with something in your writing that you just can’t figure out, work on something that requires some degree of attention (coloring books, Sudoku puzzles, Candy Crush, whatever) until you don’t feel as frustrated.

With all of these things, be sure to get right back to writing as soon as you’re feeling refreshed, preferably that same day.

Ain’t nobody got time for that?  If you need to write and you need to now, here are some:

Tenacious Things

  • Sit down with a timer and force yourself to write for a set amount of time, even if it’s terrible.
  • Free write for five minutes the inner monologue of your POV character in a scene you’re struggling with.
  • Skip that scene you’re struggling with and move on to the next one.  You can always come back to it later.
  • Pull out a pack of jelly beans (or gumdrops or M&Ms or Runts or whatever favorite tiny candy) and let yourself eat one for every fifty words you write.
  • Hop online and find some writing buddies to sprint with.  I’m way more productive when I have a time limit and some friends to impress.
  • Assign yourself punishments.  If you don’t write X number of words in Y minutes, you have to go clean out the gunk accumulating beneath the oven.  (Do not assign punishments you would have to do anyway.  Make them special, one-time-only offers.)
  • Assign yourself rewards.  If you do write X words in Y minutes, you get to buy that new Weird Al song you’ve been dying for.  (Do not use rewards that you will get yourself anyway. Make them special, one-time-only offers.)

The most important thing in all of this is to keep going.  As busy people with full lives that probably include things like jobs, other humans, dependent life-forms, etc, we can’t afford to only write when the muse is there.  Time is limited.  So do what you can to make sure that the time you do have for writing is as fruitful as possible.

Happy writing!

Writing Grant Writing

writingLast week, I applied for my first ever writing grant.  And, although I won’t know for about a month what the judges thought of the attempt, I did learn quite a bit about grant writing over the process.

The grant application, which seems to be fairly typical for artsy grants, asked for responses in several topics: my bio, my service to other writers, the potential grant money usage, and finally, a writing sample.  (Other topics that you can expect to see on applications fairly regularly might be an artist statement, career plan, or project description.  All grants are different.)

What struck me most about this application was that it was all basically information I already had.  I already had an author bio prepared as part of my querying and author branding materials.  (You did do the author branding worksheet packet, right?)  I was well aware of what work I did with other writers, and I already had an idea of what I wanted to do with the money, should I receive it.  And I had tons of writing samples lying around because I kind of do a lot of writing.  So other than needing a few hours’ worth of tweaks, I was practically there.

This won’t always be the case.  Sometimes grant writing will take hours upon hours upon hours of your precious writing time.  Sometimes, it’s just a matter of plugging materials you already have on hand into the right boxes.  It’s up to you to decide when it’s worth it, and when it’s better for you to just keep writing publishable material.  When making that decision, do keep in mind that grants are about more than just having someone toss a wad of cash at you.  They expand your writing network, they give you opportunities to take more classes or hire an editor, they add prestige and pad your author bio, and at their very most basic, they are a nice pat on the back in what can otherwise be a pretty thankless endeavor most of the time.  So when you’re thinking about whether or not it’s worth your time to try for a writing grant, think beyond the dollars (or yen or pounds or euros or whatever).

But you won’t be able to make that call until you’re looking at potential grants.  So where does one find available grants?  As with many things these days, it’s now easier than ever before.  All you need is the internet and a little super-sleuthing know-how.  Here are a few ideas to get you started in your happy hunt.

Writing Groups  Writing groups often put on their own writing grants.  This includes large groups (SCBWI, SFWA, etc), and smaller groups, like my own Alaska Writer’s Guild which offers several writing grants, scholarships, and awards every year.  If you haven’t already, consider joining one of these groups if you can.  Even if you never get a single dollar out of them, it can make a big difference in the trajectory of your career.

Art Foundations and Councils  There are many major foundations and art councils that have more monies than I can count up for grabs every year (Rasmuson Foundation, NEA,  etc), but many smaller local groups do as well.  Much like writing groups, it’s generally best to start with the local groups and work your way out from there.  Check out your city’s arts association or literacy council, or your state’s arts council, before going straight for the national groups.

The English Department  It’s surprisingly easy to contact your local college or university’s English department and ask about any writing or art grants that they’re aware of.  Not only do the teachers, who are very often writers themselves, keep track of these things, but often the department itself maintains a list that it shares with its students- and maybe you, too!  Not all departments do, but it’s worth asking.

Online Lists  These take a little more sifting to pick out the good ones from the… less good ones.  But these can be excellent resources for busy writers.  I hesitate to put up any lists that I haven’t thoroughly vetted, but I have spent a little time around fundsforwriters.com and it seems pretty legit.  (But please don’t pick up crazy viruses and make me sad.)  Any readers with helpful resources on this front could pretty please put them in the comments section?  *bats eyelashes*

If you’re still not sure where to look, grantspace.org has pulled together a fantastic resources page that can be found here, which also references Gigi Rosenberg’s own resource list here.

Once you’ve found a writing grant that’s a good fit- itself arguably the hardest part of grant writing- it’s time to hit that keyboard.  Good luck!

(And don’t forget to share in the comments if you have any great grant writing resources or tips! You guys are the best!)

Writing on the Road

RoadIn my naïve notes that I wrote up for this blog post before starting off on an insanely long road trip, I wrote “Writing on the Road- About all the tricks and stuff I used to help myself write while traveling”.  Ha.  So cute.

As mentioned in earlier posts, I didn’t get much writing done.  Really, it was all I could do to keep up with blog posts, since I burned through the buffer before the first month was out, and even then I failed on the home stretch when I somehow improperly scheduled a post and it- shocking- didn’t post.  (I’m calling this another technofail.  They never end.)

Despite the startling lack of bonanza write-a-thons, I don’t feel like the summer was a total waste, as far as writing goes or otherwise.  True, there was very little drafting, and very little editing, and not even all that much outlining or active brainstorming.  But there was a lot of experiencing going on, and experience is the foundation on which believable fiction rests.

Write what you know is one of the sacred commandments of writing, and there’s good reason for it.  Obviously nobody writing today really knows what riding a dragon feels like, or living on a colony embedded deep in an asteroid, or working as an astrologer in the court of Tutankhamen.  We make a lot of inferences about the details in our fiction.  Riding a dragon probably feels kind of like a cross between riding a horse and a hang glider.  Living on an asteroidal colony probably feels similar to living in the Princess Elizabeth Research Station, or the International Space Station, or a fancy underground bunker from the Cold War.  As writers, we get as close as we can, and then we make an educated guess.

But there are some things that can’t be fudged.  These are the things that will bother a reader like an itch they can’t quite reach.  A child whose voice isn’t quite what it should be.  A victim shouldering his abuse in a way that feels off somehow.  An emotional outburst that’s somehow wrong.  These things are much harder to quantify and, in many ways, much harder to peg.  But they’re things that, once we’ve experienced them, we can smell a fake from a mile away.  And nothing snaps a reader out of a story faster than a fake.

(And then there are the mistakes that just drive the experts crazy, like having your Western hero shoot a Peacemaker three years before the thing was developed.  But just because the demographic is small does not mean it’s quiet.  Don’t irritate your experts.)

Experiences keep us from making those mistakes.  Experience helps us to know precisely what places ache after nine hours in the saddle.  But more importantly, experience helps us to transcend the particular setting and to find the truths that are just as relevant to a thirty-year-old woman writing in a closet as they are to a twelve-year-old boy in the second century staving off starvation, or a forty-year-old xenologist encountering their first alien, or a dwarf girl who wants to be a florist when she grows up.  And when we have the experiences that give us that insight into human nature, and then we couple it with a mind open to tangents, we give ourselves a powerful recipe for creativity.

When it became clear that I wouldn’t be penning my opus magnus on the road, I instead tried to focus on keeping this recipe for creativity stewing as much as possible.  Although I don’t have the write-no-matter-what pearls of wisdom that I hoped to have, I did get some sense of the sorts of things that fostered a creative mindset (and kept me open to new experiences), and the things that killed it.  Maybe better people than I can build on merely thinking creatively and actually create creatively.

What hampered creativity

High expectations– Being disappointed in myself was the quickest way to squash my ability to think clearly, let alone creatively.  Just like your body needs time to rest after a program of intense dieting or exercise, your brain needs a break too.  All my attempts to power through and keep up on my home routine were total failures.

Stress–  I know, I know, stress can be hard to avoid when you’re hurdling down the highway for hours upon hours at a time, day after day, and the kids are so over this.  But avoid it when you can.  If you’re stressing about missing deadlines or flubbing wordcount goals or whatever, your focus is on the failures instead of the opportunities.

An excessive I-got-this attitude– I learned this at the birth of my first child- ask for help.  Trying to do everything myself- the cooking, the childcare, the everything all the time- absolutely depleted me, mind and body, leaving no energy for creativity or adventures.

What promoted creativity

Taking care of myself– When I was sick or tired or hungry or desperately iron deprived, creativity did not happen.  Mostly tears and anger and hiding under blankets happened instead.  Things were just better for the world in general when I made sure the basic needs were met first.

Time for reflection– As weird as it sounds, time was kind of a hot commodity during this vacation.  But I found it was very important for my brains to just have sit-and-chill time.  I didn’t go into it with the active intent to brainstorm, but it happened naturally, and those are always the best of storms.

Paper at the ready– I know I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but always, always keep something handy on which to jot notes.  There’s just something about having blank paper begging to be filled that gets the juices flowing.  This is especially needful when you have other things going on (like funerals, reunions, weddings, and a million visits).  My little pocket notebook has tons of little ideas and snippets that I would have forgotten completely if I hadn’t written them down.  The paper helps you think creatively, and then it helps you hang on to the things you do come up with.

I had some great ideas while on the road, ideas that I can hardly wait to flesh out and write up.  So maybe I only had the time and presence of mind to jot down some don’t-forget-this sort of notes.  I’ll count the fact that I was having ideas at all- despite the oppressive heat and despite living out of a car and despite months of nausea- as a victory.

Inspiring Vacation Photos

Ah, I’m finally home!  *hugs house*  Seriously, I never want to leave Fairbanks again.

Not that we didn’t have a great time.  We did.  We saw tons of friends and family, had many an adventure, and I was able to get lots of notes taken, even if I didn’t quite get around to much actual fiction writing.  (More on that next week.)  Another thing I was able to get a lot of: vacation photos.

A picture says a thousand words, or so goes the famous adage.  But without a translator on hand, exactly what words are being said isn’t always totally clear.  For example, what would you say is happening in this picture?

IMG_0040

Copilot, can you check our altitude?

It kind of looks like two kids are flying an airplane and are calmly about to crash into a tree.  Or maybe you see a dystopian future wherein child soldiers are sent on bombing raids.  Or maybe even fully grown space aliens who just happen to look like human children who are about to land on Earth on a mission to prepare the planet for hostile takeover.  (It’s actually my kids at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, dangling over the rhinoceros pen.  Go figure.)

This has been the longest vacation of my life.  I have lots of pictures, and lots of stories.  But if I weren’t around to tell you why there is a chipmunk on this man’s face…

IMG_0342

Tiny claws! In my eyes!

… you could probably have a really fun time making up your own version.  And your version would probably be even better than the truth, at least from a storytelling standpoint.

Vacation photos can make wonderful writing prompts.  They’re often of people outside their element, at interesting places, doing unusual things.  In a single snapshot, you typically have a setting, a character, and a basic scenario.  You can write about the photo at any point in time: write either how the photo came about, what’s happening in the photo at the moment, or the aftermath of the photo’s events.  Or you can simply grab a single element of the photo- say, an interesting person in the background, or Cousin Judy’s red sweater- and write up a spinoff that otherwise has nothing to do with the picture at all.

When using these visual prompts, it’s probably best not to use your own photos.  When you already know the real story attached to the image, it can be hard to set that one aside and start fresh.  I know what this is all about-

IMG_3803

Hey, honey! Babies are on sale!

-but you don’t.  So I would have a harder time coming up with something that isn’t just a retelling of the events than you would.  But if I were to look at someone else’s pictures, I wouldn’t have that limitation.  Fortunately, hats off to the internet, there’s no shortage of vacation photos floating around to inspire you.

Have a few more!

Remember that inspiration is all around you.  If you find yourself stuck on your writing, maybe spending a little time nosing around through Uncle Terry’s vacation photos just might be the thing to get you thinking again.

Happy writing!