Write Lightning is a blog from writer Deb Thompson.
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Fri, Feb 26 2010

Wrapped up in a storm of a story

It was a little hazy early this morning. It didn't take long for that haze to thicken into layers of rolled up clouds until I needed to turn lights on in the house. By early afternoon it started to rain and that light rain got heavier until it was a steady downpour. It has slacked off now, but there was no ignoring the storm when it was going full-force. It was loud and the air was heavy and the sky was so dark that it could have been dusk at 2pm in the afternoon. I thought of how this reminded me of the pacing of fictional stories, particularly novel-length ones. Getting caught up in reading a story means that time passes quickly and a reader can even ignore what's going on in the real world while concentrating on the story. The next time this happens to me I intend to try to make a note of what has been happening in the story and of who wrote it. I'd like to be able to capture the attention of a reader with that sort of compelling writing, wouldn't you?

posted at: 17:28 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Thu, Feb 25 2010

Should characters have agendas?

I was listening today to some of the discussion on Health Care Reform and I realized that everybody has agendas. We may not always admit it, but we each have pet theories and favorite topics we enjoy promoting and discussing. There are certain people who are actually so attached to their theories and topics that they can become megalomaniac about them, turning every conversation toward the object of their obsession.

While we shouldn't have the goal of being a megalomaniac, we should have things in life that we tackle with passion. If a main character in a fictional story is to be compelling, maybe he or she needs to have at least one thing to be passionate and intense about. It might be baking or dancing or singing in the choir or rolling dice. It might be train travel, be a pet or another person. Readers need to know that a character feels strongly about something so that they can identify with the journey that the character takes in a story. Is there a pet theory or topic that your main character keeps coming back to in some way?

posted at: 17:13 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Wed, Feb 24 2010

Maybe your characters should sneeze and use a debit card

I paid a couple of bills today and it reminded me that story characters need to do something mundane once in awhile so that readers can identify with them. Unlike those early romantic movies in which heroines woke with no sign of bed hair, readers now want their characters to experience some of life's grittier moments. You don't have to give a blow-by-blow account of a main character's chores, but a mention of the four library books they putting in the car to return or the ATM card they keep leaving in their jeans pocket and laundering gives us a little insight into their personality and thought processes. And a little extra information can give even further insight. As he puts those books into the car and two of them fall out the door, one might be on the history of the Middle Ages and the other might be Grilling for the Common Man. What would your character check out from the library?

posted at: 16:43 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Tue, Feb 23 2010

Sharpening the axe

It takes a lot of discipline to focus on writing when things in your own life crowd in and try to take up your brain's processes. I suppose it's a bit like trying to sharpen an axe while having birds swoop down and peck at your head. If sharpening the axe was something you only did once every few months you could just pick another time for that task. But if you sharpen axes on a daily basis you're going to have to find a way to keep those birds at bay so you can get some work done.

Physically removing yourself from a life situation isn't always practical, but whenever it's possible I do recommend it, at least as a temporary measure. Let your phone take messages and find someone reliable to watch over your family for an afternoon. If it isn't possible to get away you can find small ways to get your head back in your story. People might feel free to interrupt you while you're sitting and staring out the window, but they might be more reticent to interrupt while you're vacuuming or mowing the lawn. Get some thoughts lined up and then grab an extra shower where you can think alone for a few minutes. Or, mentally take one of your story's characters with you while you do some shopping.

If the life situation is a true crisis that won't wait you should probably deal with it the way any working adult would have to if they were at a job and got called away on an emergency. The danger comes in assuming that your job as a fiction writer is more dispensable than that of a bus driver or tax accountant. It's part of your job to help educate other people to treat your writing time seriously. I know. I don't like it either, but it's true most of the time.

posted at: 15:47 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Mon, Feb 22 2010


I'm really good at writing conflict, but I do not like conflict in my own life. I've met other writers with similar issues. I wonder if that's why so many great writers were also known to be either brawlers or drinkers or both? (That's a tongue-in-cheek musing, but one does wonder about such things.) I suspect that we writers all need to allow our life conflicts to lead us to an understanding of what can make our story plots more palpable and believable.

posted at: 20:54 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Fri, Feb 19 2010

Of lemons and lemonade (or the lack thereof)

We've all heard the saying. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Somewhere along the way your fictional characters are going to have to get some lemons so that you have conflict in your story. Some of those lemons may be ones they had as soon as they were born. Others may have come in childhood or may be brand new lemons that are being handed to them as you open your tale. Not only do those lemons have to be big enough to be of real consequence, but they also have to be affecting other characters. Friends, family, enemies, complete strangers to your main character may not be holding said lemons but they need to be getting the smell or the juice or the stain of those lemons all over their lives. And just when your main character seems to be juggling those lemons quite well you are probably going to have to hit them with yet another round of lemon-scented trouble that threatens to ruin their life and perhaps the lives of those around them. Sometimes the lemons can even contain elements of the very weapon needed to fight off what the lemons represent. And your particular character may or may not learn to make lemonade. But lemons will be there. That's why everyone understands the saying so well.

posted at: 14:31 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Thu, Feb 18 2010

Going to work

Sometimes a writer has to work, like anyone else, when there is no spark or energy or when one is preoccupied with other concerns. It isn't any more heroic than running a front loader while enduring a head cold or stitching a cut forehead in an emergency room after being up all night with a sick child. The thing is to do it. It's simple. It's not always easy, but it is simple.

posted at: 23:34 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Wed, Feb 17 2010

Wrestling, boxing, arguing, fisticuffs, wizard wand-offs and words

I was watching a sort of online brawl today. I could talk about the people involved in that activity, but the sort of thing going on seemed to be feeding on itself a bit too much as it was. It did all start me thinking about conflicts in fiction. If two characters (or sets of characters) are having a fight or an argument in your story you should try to pace things so that it doesn't get to be the same old thing over and over. It might mean injecting other characters or changing the location of the battle.

That all being said, I've seen some really great scenes in films where a physical confrontation went on so long that I wondered how long it would last. If done well, such a scene can make the viewer feel the exhaustion that a prolonged session of table throwing and bottle breaking could bring. It's trickier to do that in a written story, but under certain circumstances a drawn-out fight could enhance other conflict being woven into the tale. In a world where everyone got along we'd wouldn't have to worry about such things, but I'm finding that there is plenty of conflict all around to inspire us to underscore the great themes and issues of life.

posted at: 21:49 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Mon, Feb 15 2010

Can what we write from the top of a mountain be improved by climbing down into a ravine?

I took a week off from blogging, even though I could have blogged long-distance. It's important to get a fresh perspective now and then, focus on verbal and face-to-face communication and maybe see things through the eyes of others. I walked past rows of booths in a large convention center. Opportunities to watch people were everywhere and I also had conversations with one or two of the staff, who were pleasant individuals who went out of their way to assist and inform visitors. I live in a much smaller community with fewer people, fewer roads, fewer businesses and fewer padding against the latest economic recession. But this was Anaheim, California, home to a certain famous mouse and all that goes with that, a place perceived as the land of opportunity and possibilities.

If you tend to write from a quiet place I would suggest that you change it out for a busy intersection of life once in awhile. If you struggle to write in odd moments between chauffeuring children and putting out fires at the office, switch that out for a quiet place now and then. The change doesn't have to be drastic. Change the radio station you listen to or drive to a grocery store parking lot and just listen to people getting in and out of their cars and talking to children. The jog that you give your mind could add a different energy and a sense of renewal to your words.

posted at: 15:16 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Mon, Feb 08 2010

The burning and the extinguishing--and the writing that suffers

Posts will be minimal this week while we work on some office logistics and other important tasks. It's tough enough keeping one's head in the game when one is kept from writing fiction by being busy working on material that is (generally) more utilitarian than creative. When tasks are completely non-writing in nature and are having to come first it becomes obvious that sometimes all a writer can do is stay the course mentally while putting out the proverbial fires of life.

posted at: 21:26 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Fri, Feb 05 2010

Story structure

There's a popular acronym that most of us have seen: KISS. It seems to have originally been intended by engineer Kelly Johnson to stand for "Keep it simple and stupid". Somewhere along the way it evolved to be known more often as "Keep it simple, stupid". Unfortunately, the latter phrase sounds like an insult. Some prefer KIS, which translates to "Keep it simple".

The original admonition is a good one, not only for engineers, but for writers. We may have to do plenty of research behind the scenes of our writing. But our goal should be to make it so easy for the reader to engage in a story that the underpinnings of our work fade into the background. There's always a leap of faith when one gets on an exciting carnival ride. We don't usually get to interview the people who designed or assembled the ride. And most of us don't ask to see the drawings or specifications. We trust that when we climb onto that contraption we're going to have the ride of our lives. A reader expects the same of a writer.

posted at: 10:55 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Thu, Feb 04 2010

Write where you can make the best of it

If you haven't written today, why not? That's not a confrontational question. It's intended to just get your mind thinking about the real reasons why you haven't done much wordsmithing lately. You may think you have some sort of block when what you really have might be the need for a more (or less) comfortable chair or maybe a warmer (or cooler) room in which to work. Some people think one has to have an office equipped with a formal desk, files and full reams of paper neatly stacked nearby before they can create their work. But I know of writers who, at least to begin their projects, scribble in cheap composition books in the car. Some curl up in a porch swing near a honeysuckle vine to get their fiction flowing. I've done some very satisfying work in a public library. I could have quick access to research there and could observe people coming and going and could listen to their conversations and use their words to keep my own characters' dialogue sounding real. Your writing space should be whatever pokes a hole in your writing vein and draws the story from your core.

posted at: 14:38 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Wed, Feb 03 2010

How to stay too busy for writer's block

Even if you write full-time you may have days when your actual writing time is very limited, or you may have time to write but find that your time to stay in a creative flow is restricted or cut into small sessions. One of my habits is to keep an easy acces to non-fiction, fiction, poetry and other projects. If I'm at a computer I try to have handy access to a notepad type of program and keep plenty of notes going there. If an idea strikes while I'm working on some research I jot down my thoughts in a notepad window. I carry pads or paper with me in the car on short or long trips. A camera is handy to capture scenery or buildings that spark story scenes or new settings. I have file folders containing photos and character notes. I even keep grocery lists on the refrigerator that have been known to spark ideas for a story. Writing is a life-long habit for me. Memory can fail, but getting a thought or a list down on paper helps guarantee that I'll take action with it later. If you're doing queries or focusing on certain markets you might be trying to keep track of that along with all your other writing. If you're also an illustrator or you take your own photos for articles you'll need a way to keep track of those. Trust me. There is always plenty for a writer to do, including at those times one can't sit and stare at the computer screen or composition book and "create".

posted at: 22:05 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Tue, Feb 02 2010

I don't have time (or insert-other-word-here) to write

Writing at home is a challenge for many of us who write. There are always other things that will tug and pull and try to steal our writing time and focus. And we can't ignore our social life. It's important to keep human contact going so that we don't become hermits and forget how to tell stories of real humans. It's always a challenge for me to keep the house clean, do laundry, help the spouse with outdoor projects and other things and still be able to sit down and concentrate on writing stories. There are a million things that can pull us away from our writing. Are we going to let that happen? If not, how can we keep going when the refrigerator breaks down, we need to pack and catch a plane, we need to clean up after dogs or help kids with homework, we need to write checks for bills and maybe we even need to handle another whole job and then try to sit and write without fatigue taking us right off to sleep?

When I know I can't spend hours on a project I try to find ways to keep it fresh in my mind. I make lists or write down key words relating to scenes I'm building in my mind. While my hands are busy cutting up onions, unless it's one of those particularly radioactive onions that takes full focus, I try to keep the mind busy with seeing my characters and imagining their gestures, their voices and their general look. I've even spoken lines aloud to see whether my character would actually say such a thing.

People often think writing is easy. Good writing isn't easy. It takes commitment. It takes energy. It takes determination. It takes using whatever task is before you as a catalyst to move the writing forward rather than holding the writing back. I'm writing this right now to remind myself of all this. I hope some of you reading it might find help at the same time.

posted at: 13:27 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

Mon, Feb 01 2010

The joy of sharing dictionaries

Writing blog entries while under the influence of intense sleepiness can lead to odd word choices and loopy sentence structure. Let me just say that I had great fun helping pass out dictionaries to third graders this afternoon. It's a real treat watching children gasp and applaud when told that they are getting their own dictionary to keep forever. And it's a whipped cream and maraschino cherry kind of topping on the treat to see a whole class of kids open those dictionaries and look up word after word and check the lists of planets and other information in the back of the book.

As a child, one of my favorite things to do was to sit and read a dictionary. When I see a kid do that same thing now I realize that the third grader who looks up at me and smiles from behind those pages might be a budding writer. I'm sure the fun of that realization will come through in this post, in spite of intense sleepiness. It was a very satisfying day.

posted at: 22:50 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

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Stealin' copy is as bad as horse-thievin'
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such varmints when they least expect it!