words and images by mk swanson
An Editor’s Perspective: Prompts for Winter

An Editor’s Perspective: Prompts for Winter

I wrote this as a guest post for StoryCircle Network, a companion to Discipline for Spring Writing in Women’s Memoir. Pictures are courtesy of David Raistrick.


A Winter in Writing

Mulberry in winter

A writing winter can come at any time. If you’re a tenacious person, you stare at a blank page, but if you’re easily sidetracked (like me), you find things to distract you—a DIY show, web-surfing, calling a sister, or even cleaning the bathtub. The whole time, you take up and discard countless strategies for continuing your writing project without committing a word to the page.

Don’t mistake winter for Antarctica. If you’re prepared, you can use this time to explore your characters (both in fiction and memoir), organize your story, and feather your writing nest, so that when a writing spring comes, you have laid the groundwork for success.

In Search of Your Characters

Defining and recording the characters in your story can help you maintain continuity, move more quickly through descriptions, and create or evoke three-dimensional personalities. For this exercise, select three people from your story—your protagonist (yourself, in memoir), primary antagonist and an important side character—and write three short essays:

1. Imagining yourself as the antagonist, describe the protagonist.
2. As the protagonist, describe the side character.
3. As the side character, describe the antagonist.

Include details of physical description, personal history, and what the subject of the essay wants most in life. (This is imagination. It doesn’t matter if these characters know each other in the story.)

Plot Spot

I have noticed that television shows seem to be getting their plots from a central database, a place I call the Plot Spot. I imagine Plot Spot as a website where plot designers post their ideas, and buyers pay per plot or by subscription.

What if you wanted to sell your plot on Plot Spot? Answer the following four questions in present tense to fill out your Plot Spot form. (Remember, memoir should have a plot, too.)

  1. What happens to change your protagonist’s life? Example: Jake’s wife Bonnie disappears.
  2. How does your protagonist respond? Facing police disinterest, Jake determines to track Bonnie himself.
  3. What shakes your protagonist’s confidence at the last minute? Jake discovers that Bonnie is living on the yacht of a shady but handsome antiquities dealer in Miami.
  4. What is the dramatic peak of your story? In a last ditch effort to win Bonnie, Jake sneaks on board the yacht as a security guard and finds out that Bonnie has been held prisoner.

Notice that on Plot Spot, it doesn’t matter how it ends. As a bonus prompt, think of several potential endings for the example plot—romantic comedy, dramatic adventure, tragedy, or screwball comedy.

Gathering mulberries

Comfort for the Writing Life

Chances are good that you haven’t indulged your writer self in ages. You may be typing on an ancient desktop computer, using a frustrating application that doesn’t help you organize your thoughts, or sitting in a chair with half its stuffing pulled out by the dog.

Invest in yourself. It’s even more important to do when you’re in a slump. Here are a seven choice writerly treats, both expensive and cheap:

  1. Get a laptop computer, so you can write anywhere you like.
  2. Find a voice-recording app for your smartphone to record ideas when you can’t write them down.
  3. Arrange a spot outside, with a comfortable chair and a table, where you can take your writing when the weather is nice. Shade and an electrical outlet are bonuses.
  4. Go to the office supply store and buy a couple of new pens that are exactly what you like. Take your time to consider color and point size.
  5. Look into specialty writing software like Celtx, Scrivener, Typing Chimp, Mariner, and Storycraft.
  6. Eliminate distractions by using a text editor like WordPad, Notepad, TextEdit, or BBedit.
  7. Take a workshop, start a critique group, or hire a writing coach.

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