Paranoid Bell Peppers and Other Writing Prompts

'July Collage 3' photo © 2010, Julie Jordan Scott - license:
Writing prompts are small sparklers that can light up corners of your writing mind, corners that might remain dark without the nudge.

Prompts can be so completely off the wall—”Describe how your intestines would try to parallel-park a minivan”—that your conventional approach to storytelling is struck dumb—a new tongue can be induced to speak.

Writing in other voices, other colors and other textures is a way to unleash your imagination’s beast. Roar!

There are a number of sites on the Net that supply good writing prompts. If a character in one of your stories goes mute, or a plot point doesn’t seem to have a point, they can be a good way to get your writing threads unglued. Writing for five minutes on some fizzy subject could loosen whatever is reining you in on your bigger project.

Here are some sites:

Creative Writing Prompts
Writer’s Digest Prompts
Creative Writing Solutions
One Minute Writer
Sunday Scribblings
On Twitter: @writingprompts

And for fun, here are a couple of my pieces I just zipped off, a few minutes per. One was to put myself in the mind of a vegetable (not too hard in my case) and another in the mind of a metal. Both of them appear to have some self-esteem problems.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

“Uhh, something’s not right,” the bell pepper said aloud. I feel something damp right at my feet, she thought. No, not quite damp, no, more like mossy, yes mossy.

She strained to see her tiny feet, but being a bell pepper, could do nothing more than glimpse a bit of the soft green swell of her belly. It’s itchy too, she thought.

Then with an abrupt tightening of her shoulders (which being a bell pepper, didn’t tighten all that much), she realized it: she was moldy! Moldy, her, and not even two weeks old. She stifled a sob, and then groaned. She sensed the nearby celery shrinking back from her.

Iron’s Bluff Is Called

Nothing’s nobler than Iron, Iron Eddy thought. All those other pretenders, magnesium, sulphur, silicate—hah! Losers, pathetic wannabes. I alone am iron-hearted, iron willed. He looked quickly around and then said under his breath, “But I’ve been hearing some rumors, ugly rumors. It got back to me that my mother wasn’t pure!” He bestirred his tight neck and raised his voice: “Nonsense! Just look at me, red-blooded in every way!” But he cast his eyes down, to the ore of his soul, and murmured, “But what about those striations of blue. Surely no one can see their vile shadows …”

Get Prompted, Get Productive

I know I know, works of genius, aren’t they? But fun! Check out those prompt sites and fling some sentences into the universe. They might orbit around in your head long enough to spur you on write something with more gravity.

If Woody Allen Was a Marketing Copywriter

Woody Allen writing
I’m a guy who likes a well-turned aside, the parenthetical phrase. (Admit it—you find the curves on a pair of parentheses sexy too.) One fun example is the elocution that made Jimmy Stewart famous. Many of his movies display his signature mannerism, where another character has declared something outrageous or unanticipated, and Jimmy will be in a kind of reverie where he’ll say something like, “Oh, well, uh, yeess, I suppose that’s so …” then a “What! What did you say?” And the reversal from his mumbles to his mania is priceless.

There’s something so charming about the head-scratching Stewart mumbling and stuttering his asides to the central conversation. But the best kind of sidelong declarations are the kind found in any of Woody Allen’s movies where he is a character. He’ll be in a big-picture situation that is neutral or slightly loaded, but Woody interprets it with an end-of-the-world punchline, often a lesson in comedic writing (and thinking).

Woody, the Reluctant Pitch Artist

Woody’s the antithesis of the marketing copywriter, but it’s fun to look at some of his stuff in a copywriting light:

• Timing the customer funnel. (Know when your buyer is ready. Or nudge them along.)

Allen: “What are you doing Saturday night?” Davila: “Committing suicide.” Allen: “What about Friday night?”

• If you can’t get a customer testimonial, the next best thing is to write one yourself.

“You can’t control life. It doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only art you can control. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.”

• Direct, plain-spoken words on personal challenges draw customer empathy. And who doesn’t like to complain about being ripped off?

“I am plagued by doubts. What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In which case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”

• Features and benefits and imparting a sense of urgency

“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.”

• Know your audience demographics (and don’t be afraid to drop names)

“I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.”

• Statistics can sell the story:

“There are two types of people in this world, good and bad. The good sleep better, but the bad seem to enjoy the waking hours much more.”

• Communicating the “What’s In It For Me” angle:

“Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go it’s pretty damn good.”

OK, admittedly Woody is weak on calls to action, fuzzy on the features/benefits dance, and rather than solving a problem, he often introduces one. And a little bit of self-loathing can go a long way, but a lot, hmmm. But I do wish he’d take a shot at it—today’s beer commercials are sorely lacking in that winning parenthetical (and existential) touch.

Feeling a Word’s Curves—Oh, the Ecstasy!

Dictionary page
Writers can have a volatile relationship with words, often loving the little darlings when they line up in convivial cooperation. Sometimes words supply delight even when sentence forms are abused to torque a subject or vandalize a verb. “Words, yes, friends all!” the hoodwinked writer declares. Until the words land on the page with an audible clunk, or when an apt phrase or exact expression can’t be found no matter how deep the writer shovels into her soul. “Words, damn them, unreliable curs!”

I feel my own little death when I can’t summon the rhythmic bits of language that brick out a character or spin a scene, no matter fiction or fact. But here, I want to talk about appreciating a certain sense of words as objects, a savoring of the spice from a word stew.

In this case, I’m not talking about meanings; I’m referring to loving the feel of a word, its texture, whether it’s silky or scratchy, the odd combo of visual/visceral sensation you might get in your head from processing the very spelling of a word. You know, when looking a words gives you this kind of sensation. That kind of word sensitivity started young in me too—maybe it was all those ice-cream brain freezes that cooled my cranium.

The Weight of Words

Anyway, I had an early awareness of the weight of words, and some I gravitated to some more so than others. For instance, words with “x” in them, like bollix or flummoxed. Do those give you the little frisson I’m alluding to? And how certain words feel just right in their denotation: queasy has that little lurch or drop in its letter construction—in its stomach—that is carried through in its definition. Or a word like morbid: it has a deliciously dark feel.

I’ve heard it said by some comedians that some words, by their letters alone, are funny. Words that start with “k” or the k sound, for instance. Probably why I like the sound of the word crapulous—or maybe it just harkens to my Coca Cola-crapulous days behind the gargantuan brandy snifter in which I housed and hogged down all that carbonated sugar water as a child.

Digging Through Your Dictionaries

I wrote an essay a long while back for a magazine called Verbatim, about the crazy collection of dictionaries I had, and how fun it is to just flip through them and look for words that have a furry feeling, or a sinister sparkle, or a wry rictus. It’s a challenge to look through any dictionary page and not see some words that make you squint or grimace or grin.

Like your words ‘lectronic? There are bunches of word sites, but here are a couple of fun ones: Wordnik and Wordoid. Wordnik has a nice interactive aspect where you can upload your own usage notes, comments and citations to their word examples. Wordoid lets you play with made-up words. But don’t let your mother catch you.

Word: The Cat’s Meow

Let’s extend the word-delirium extend that a bit: the Shelf Awareness daily compendium of bookish (but never boorish) news revealed this statement from author Rick Riordan a while back about something he learned in his Egypt-themed novel research:

I did quite a bit of research, and had shelves of books on hieroglyphs and how magic pertained. The ancient Egyptians considered all writing magic. They had to be careful: if they created the word “cat,” they had to deface it slightly, because they believed they could create a cat. The idea was that the ultimate form of magic was to speak and the world began. You see that influence in the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” All these ancient cultures dovetail, and they were all forming and evolving at the same time.

Behold the power of words! (Note: I spent all day writing variants of “Jaguar” yesterday, but no car appeared. I did see an old cat move haltingly through the yard, however…)

So, feel the curve of your words, know which ones excite and enchant, which are sturdy soldiers, and which weak-kneed wastrels. You’ll never be able to truly tame them, but sometimes just getting them to play nice with one another is a mountain topped.

Psychobilly Cadillacs and Sweaty Island Tales

Psychobilly Cadillac

photo by Wikipedia

Hope I don’t seem like a stealthy weasel by luring you to this solemn site for a blog post only to send you away willy-nilly on the wings of links, but I had a couple of fun pieces published on other sites that may tickle whatever you might have that’s worth tickling.

The first, The Johnny Cash Approach to Novel Writing, uses the Man in Black’s crazed “I built a backyard Caddy out of pilfered parts” song as a frame for building the consciousness of your fictional characters (and vivid renderings of places where stories unfold), by gathering both the lunatic and the prosaic blossoms of incident and observation that happen to you over time. Really, the hot bricks of storybuilding are everywhere, so bring your wheelbarrow. This piece just appeared on Writer Unboxed.

The other is a literal stream-of-consciousness piece: streaming because it’s all about the almost hallucinatory effects of living in a tropical climate, endless perspiration prominent among them. You might feel you need to apply deodorant after reading this, but really it’s more amusing than odorous. The article in question, I Sweat, Therefore I Am (Sweaty) can be found on the congenial confines of Dave’s Travel Corner.


Tequila and Cookies: Writing Perks to Push Your Pages


 Hold on cookie fiend—you have to finish that chapter first!

As I sat hunched in my dank writing grotto, and tried to figure out a way to move my mouse so that the 40-pound chains that kept me at my desk wouldn’t rattle so, I pondered the rewards of writing. No, no, not those tinhorn rewards like a Booker or a Pulitzer or a Nobel, where you are forced to podium-prattle about authorial intention while you die inside over errant exposure of your nose hairs to the functionaries seated below. No, too tedious those rewards—I turned them all down, a polite click on the phone.

The rewards in question are the spurs, the goads, the carrotiest of carrots: the in medias res rewards you give (or deny) yourself while you are writing, or after a writing bridge has been crossed. The system of checks and pizzas, er, balances, by which you induce yourself to squeeze out another chapped chapter or even a single soggy sentence. What are those rewards? Do they work? (And does this punctuation mark make me look fat?)

I know you are champing at the bit to know whether it’s the lady or the tiger (or the tequila or the cookies), and one more click will do the trick: see the rest of my post courtesy of the fine folks at Writer Unboxed.

(Check out the post there for the crazed comments alone. I’d recommend Writer Unboxed for all fiction writers, for issues of craft, agenting, publishing and more. And tequila and cookies.)

Without An Address, You Can’t Go Home

Howdy Pardner Vegas Cowboy

Photo by Kevin Connors

When I lived in Las Vegas, my title at United Parcel Service was “Bad Address Clerk.” Because Vegas is a town of drifters, grifters and shifters of identity, packages would continually go astray, paralleled by the wanderings of their addressees, who in a month’s time in Vegas might have changed their residence—and their jobs, spouses and perhaps even their sex—two or three times. And then disappeared. So my shelves were filled with boxes large and small, for which the drivers could find no recipients.

Thus, if I exhausted every means of trying to locate these souls-on-the-wing (this being the 70s, many phone calls and phone book scratchings later), I would get to OPEN the packages, and, CSI-like, try to ascertain the whereabouts of the recipient by something in their contents. Guess what? People send very interesting things in the mail. Tear gas, for example. Firearms. Naughty things (I kept those). Jewelry. It was a diverting job, for a while; too bad it didn’t keep me out of the casinos.

Vicious tease that I am, I won’t let you see this tale fully unfold here. But know that it culminates in me stealing a car from a stripper, and having a cop remove me from my college classroom.

Well, at least that’s how it went down on paper. Check out the full article at Dave’s Travel Corner.

(What happens in Vegas—stays in your mind for years to come.)

The Viking Origin of Editing

As a historian who relies exclusively on lies, only I can sufficiently explain that Vikings were the original editors. And effective editors they were.

Please view the film below, where I let the world know about the early—and brutal—days of editing, and how that has affected editors today.

Take a Punctuation Mark to Lunch

Question Mark

A comma, a period and a semicolon walk into a bar … oh, wait! I can’t finish the joke; I forget how it’s punctuated.

Wow, tough crowd.

But punctuation’s no joke, my friends—each punctuation mark has a grave (or acute) purpose: sometimes bearing a serious slant, sometimes swinging a strong, straight shoulder to torque the weight of words through thought rivers. Think of the cymbal crash of the exclamation point, the yearning intrigue of the question mark, the potential hidden menace of the semicolon.

But behind the sober, workaday faces of those little bits of pause and check, it’s not so black and white. Every punctuation mark has its own personality, much more idiosyncratic than that of a bland worker wielding the traffic signals of sentence flow. Like any of us, they appreciate the anonymity of a job well done, but at the same time, they don’t mind letting on that there’s a purple sash under the white cotton shirt …

But if you want to fully know the compelling reasons why you should take your favorite punctuation mark to lunch, you’ll have to go over to Writer Unboxed, where I finish up this exposé on both the sappy and the sordid aspects of those tricky lines, dots, slashes and dashes.

Mixing Martinis, Grammar, the Past and the Future

Dry Martini

As Magritte might have said, this is not a martini. This is the future.

My parents offered me a sip of a martini when I was seven or eight years old. I recall recoiling in disgust from its sharp, medicinal tang: “How can you drink that? It’s terrible!” Yet a crisp, cold martini on a Friday at five now seems the ideal reward for a week’s labor.

It is always amusing to remember the heated declarations you make in earlier days—”When I get outta this house I’m never going to cut my hair, ever!—and to consider the cooling of those declarations when they’re set out for a stretch on time’s countertop. That’s why I had to laugh when I saw the term “Future in the Past” in a grammar book the other day. Let’s relate it to the martini: who wants to read a grammar book for pleasure? Think of squirming away from grammar lessons in grade school; it would have been a difficult decision to determine whether you’d rather have a toothache or listen to someone prattle on about grammar.

Grammar: It’s Funnier Than it Tastes

But I’ve been in the writing trade for a while, and I think it’s good (and even fun) to continue to sharpen your tools. So, I’ve been reading Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide To Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar and Punctuation. Yes, you’re right, I’m a riot at parties. Anyway, in one of the sections on tenses (stay with me, people), there’s a discussion of some tense variants that are little used, and the one that seemed delightful to me was “future in the past,” described as expressing the idea that an an earlier time point, there had been an expectation that something would later happen.

Dig that! So, if you say, “I had a feeling that you were going to bloat like a dirigible if you ate that entire cheesecake,” you are using the future in the past tense. I also liked the further explanation that it doesn’t matter if your future/pasting was correct or not. So, we can all shoot to be soothsayers, but if that doesn’t work out, we can go into accounting.

Yeah, I guess you had to be there. But just to push it further: over time, with different editions of yourself, you learn a bit more of who you are. That kid who spat out that martini would never have dreamed that something in a grammar book would delight him years later. He might have said, “I knew that Tom was going to hate martinis and grammar when he grew up.” And he would have been wrong, but he would have crafted a fine future-in-the-past utterance. You live, you learn.

And continuing to learn: that’s a crisp, cold martini to me. I’ll take two.

Anchor Distilling’s Junipero Gin—delicious!

Dribbling Metaphors (and Other Sporting Pursuits)

The grammar coach works with a recalcitrant verb

 A Grammar Coach Works with a Recalcitrant Verb

It’s easy to tire of the exhausted sports metaphor: “He dropped the ball; it’s in your court; that was a slam dunk; we had to punt.” Most clichés have altogether lost their pepper, but ones involving sporting feats—employed with particularly ruthless disregard for their applicability in the business world—seem to have withered before they even rounded second base. So for me to drag you, punting and dunking, into an arena where basketball is used as a metaphorical muse for writing might cause you to think this is an exercise in sweaty nonsense.

And yet. This past weekend I went to a professional basketball game in Santa Cruz, where the Oakland Warriors have their D (developmental) League team. If you’ve watched (or even played) much basketball, it can look like a manic maelstrom of movement, the ball whipping from player to player, defenders darting, many a feint and many a collision of shoulders and legs. And that’s just on one possession of the ball. It begins all over again when the ball changes hands.

But when a team is running the court in high gear, when passes are crisp, cuts away from or to the basket are sharp, when a jump shot floats off the fingers of the shooter like a soft fluttering dove to nestle in the net, it’s a thing of beauty. That’s how it is when words, sentences, paragraphs are working right. There is motion in language, there is exchange of motion, there is anticipation and delivery. The smooth pause can lead to an explosive conclusion; a quiet turn of phrase can open up a delicate cat and mouse communication, one that can lead to a ferocious end or a finessed bit of finery.

Words Work in Teams

While I watched the action on the court, word weirdo that I am, I thought how words work in teams, how there is an energy exchange between words, and how when you move them around in different ways, their meaning is recast. So it is with the movement on the court. Of course, the court movement can have a slapdash, arrhythmic outcome, as can a poorly rendered sentence or paragraph. Use the wrong verb and your sentence sags. Put your center out on top of your offense in place of your point guard, and watch your offense go to sleep.

I also started thinking of how your first-string team (your conflicted protagonist, the opening lines of your blog post, the value prop of your business) is supported by the structural material of your second string team (the backstory, the summary section of the blog, the features/benefits box), and how your bench material can hold the dam together while the prime design shines. But then I realized I was mixing sports metaphors with other writing clichés, kind of like making a meal of old boxing gloves and thumbtacks, and nobody’s hungry for that. Slam dunk!

Addendum: Awesome Engagement (and Comment for Cash)

I am a finalist in Firepole Marketing’s Awesome Engagement Strategies guest-posting contest. My post, which is about how being a human being in your dealings with clients or with your audience is so much more helpful than being a crazed-for-sales wolverine, is running now. I’d greatly appreciate it you’d stop by and agree, disagree or leave an epic poem in the comments section. The five best commenters throughout the contest get $100. If I win the contest, I get to do some kind of go-go dancing with Danny Iny, the site’s head honcho, so go out and buy some thigh-high white boots for me in anticipation.