Monday, December 27, 2010

Getting Creative, Part 6: Create a Prompt Library

Writing prompts are a fun way to get started in writing. The topics are bountiful, so create a library of them for whenever you are contending with writer’s block. Here are a few examples:

From the Ifs, Ands, and Buts File:
  • IF I had only a notebook and a pen AND were stranded in an igloo with an Inuit family BUT had no mobile phone coverage …
  • IF my mother and father met three years after they did AND were living independent, single lives BUT were both extremely successful at their jobs ….

From the People, Places, and Things Files:

  • An elderly NAVAHO WOMAN standing outside the SUPERMARKET was selling GIRL SCOUT COOKIES …
  • My DENTIST bumps into me in the GRAND CANAL of Venice drinking bottled WATER

From the Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral File:

  • A RABBIT would not let go of the CARROT it was chomping on as it scampered to the barn during a HAILSTORM …
  • The TAXICAB DRIVER drove past a CORNFIELD, he realized he was on the wrong side of the MOUNTAIN …

From the 5W & H File:

  • The person WHO invented the wheel …
  • WHAT is least likely to happen to me if I won the lottery is …
  • WHERE the country’s next military deployment will be …
  • WHEN human evolved from their former species, the knowledge they took …
  • WHY President Richard Nixon did not destroy the White House tapes is a matter of …
  • HOW Captain Edward John Smith died aboard Titanic in 1912 …

From the 3A File (Analysts, Artists, and Athletes):

  • SIGMUND FREUD had little to say to ANDRÉS SEGOVIA when DAVID VILLA scored another goal against Austria because ...
  • ALBERT EINSTEIN postulated that LEONARDO DA VINCI and MUHAMMAD ALI understood their craft as well as did his because ...

Books by Philip Vassallo

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting Creative, Part 5: Introduce Random Folks

What if President Barack Obama met Chairman Mao Zedong in Majorca? Or Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda met astronaut Virgil Grissom in Aruba? No let’s stretch these scenarios some more: What if Obama met Johannes Sebastian Bach in eleventh-century India, Zedong met Francis of Assisi on the Christopher Columbus-skippered Santa María in the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, Neruda met Genghis Khan in an Internet café in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2004, and Virgil Grissom met El Greco at the Parthenon in Athens in 430 BC? What would these characters say to each other? How would they interact in their new environment?

Maybe you have nothing to write about concerning these historical figures, or maybe you couldn’t care less to write about them. But if you’re in a writing funk, it might be a great idea to introduce random characters to each other to see how they would interact in a time and environment unfamiliar to them. Maybe you’d get Obama talking to Bach not about American politics or Baroque music but about the reasonable price of food in Calcutta. Maybe Zedong would ask Francis not whether he agrees that Communism is an antidote for Christianity but whether he knows of antidotes to seasickness during their journey to the New World. Maybe Neruda and Khan would not analyze twentieth-century Spanish poetry and thirteenth-century Mongolian empires but would complain about how surfing the Internet does not compensate for the severe cold and total darkness of Alaskan winters. Maybe Grissom and El Greco would not exchange ideas on spaceflight or painting but they would talk admiringly of the Athenian view from the Acropolis. And those ideas—the price of food, the remedies for common illnesses, the weather, and the panoramic landscapes—are what drive narratives and preoccupy characters in fiction.

I am not suggesting that you write an entire treatise on such anachronistic encounters. Not even an entire paragraph. Just enough—whatever it takes—to make connections to the characters in the places and times you have placed them. You are likely to borrow some of their dialogue for your own characters.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Getting Creative, Part 4: Work Differently

I consider myself a creature of habit. Many of us do, but we’re more flexible, more adaptable, than we might think. When we wake up a few minutes late, we don’t refuse to get out bed and wait until tomorrow when we wake up on time. When an emergency or tragedy strikes, we don’t say to ourselves, “But I had plans momentarily, so I will keep them.” When our bosses tell us that we need to show up 15 minutes early or stay an hour late to meet a pressing business need, we don’t say, “Sorry, but my work mind functions only from 9 to 5.” We deal with situations as they pop up, often in spite of our best-laid plans.

The same goes for our writing system. If you notice that you’re just not producing at the same level as usual, then maybe the problem is not you but your system. For instance, I well know that I create best early in the morning, even before sunrise, but my work as a writing consultant often demands that I leave the house as early as 5:30 a.m. When this is the case, I need a Plan B, which, needless to say, is to write at night. I have a Plan C and a Plan D as well. If I hit the late evening too tired to write anything creatively, I turn to those moments in the writing process that do not demand much creativity: revising, editing, and proofreading. Or I do some planning by researching more about my topic.

So how can you work differently? Listen to music when you’re writing, or turn off the music if you always listen to music. Find a different time to work, or a different place. Start on an entirely
new topic unrelated to your current writing project. Spend more time reading or researching and less time drafting, or spend more time drafting but at different intervals. Try longhand writing when staring at the computer is not cutting it. Take a walk or do some other exercise before and during your writing. The possibilities are limitless, depending on your system. Breaking routine can unlock the door to your next burst of creativity.

Books by Philip Vassallo
How to Write Fast Under Pressure
  • The Art of E-mail Writing
  • The Art of On-the-Job Writing
  • The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching Through Philosophy
  • Wednesday, December 15, 2010

    Getting Creative, Part 3: Try Something New

    When I was in a college journalism course, the professor assigned the class to report on a new experience. As a jazz fan, I already had plans that weekend to see Lance Hayward, one of my favorite jazz pianists, perform at his regular spot in New York’s Village Corner. On at least a half-dozen occasions I had enjoyed his swinging style and absolute mastery of the keyboard, so I was not about to change my plans. But I could not report on the event because it was not a new experience.

    Then it dawned on me: While his music was not new to me, his personal life was. I would interview him between his sets, and if he declined to be interviewed I would write about his refusal and how it made me feel. I couldn’t go wrong. I remember listening to his set in complete anxiety, wondering how I would approach this musical genius, doubting I had the courage to even ask him for an interview, and feeling upset for not having planned the questions to ask him if he did grant the interview.

    Long story short, I did ask him, he agreed, and I totally bombed as the interviewer. I did learn where he was born (Bermuda), how long he lived in America (“seven years”), for how long he was blind (“for as long as I remember”), and why he turned to jazz (“I didn’t turn to jazz; I turned to music”). But I mostly stammered, hiccupped, and blundered through those eternal five minutes, ending the conversation at the bar as uneasily and abruptly as I had begun it. I was so embarrassed that I left the Village Corner before he began his next set.

    I went home and wrote an honest account of how a tongue-tied novice interviewer failed at this task at uncovering the life of someone he idolized but still succeeded at keeping alive for himself the mystery of the interviewee’s musicianship. My professor gave me an A on the report. He wrote, “You wisely refrained from dwelling on Hayward’s answers to your trite questions, but you described your passion—if not his—for a music that is always a new experience for you, which is what jazz is.”

    Wow. In other words, my professor was telling me that a mediocre writer’s mediocre account of a mediocre experience could still unearth something new, something worthwhile, something memorable. And here I tell the story thirty-seven years later.

    And I tell the story as reminder to do something new, something outside your comfort zone, to have something interesting to say. It could be an interview of a 92-year-old neighbor, a description of a remote corner in a community park, a reaction to a library shelf that you have never explored—it doesn’t matter, as long as it is new. You’ll see what happens: your fingers will not keep up with the images your brain evokes as you try to capture the experience. Your creativity will explode.

    Saturday, December 11, 2010

    Getting Creative, Part 2: Oppose Yourself

    Writers tend to have strong convictions. They feel strongly about an issue and write tirelessly about it, pouring their every emotion and baring their soul until they reveal the heart of the matter at hand in its simplest, profoundest truth.

    This is not always a good thing. Such a mindset can be the culprit of an intellectual tunnel vision that shuts out contradictory evidence and opposing viewpoints from sources equally credible as the ones supporting their opinion. Worse, writing from the same perspective can cause a boredom that stifles creativity.

    As a way of keeping the creative fire burning, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, think from the perspective of your nemeses. If you are a die-hard Democrat, then imagine what life must be like for Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. If you dislike baseball, reflect on the life of a spouse or child of a major league player. If you cannot fathom a life without literature, consider how a typical day would go for one of the millions of people in the world who cannot read. If you hate Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, or Skinheads, pretend that one of their members is your beloved brother or daughter. After all, no one—not Adolf Hitler, not Idi Amin Dada, not Osama bin Laden—thinks he is engaged in doing wrong; he thinks he is right or at least is more than justified for doing wrong. Get into those heads, take something interesting from them, and use it as a springboard for a new essay or story.

    This is the kind of thinking that led to making Michael Corleone in The Godfather such a compelling character. He is not just a ruthless, vengeful, power-mongering murderer; he is also a family man devoted to his family and friends—just like the best of us. Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs is not merely a sadistic serial killer; he is a charming, cultured, intellectual gentleman—the sort of man we would welcome into our home.

    You can oppose yourself by resisting knee-jerk-response prose quite easily. Suppose your anti-abortion stance makes you so frustrated with abortion clinics. Walk a metaphorical mile in the shoes of an abortion activist, not necessarily as she is politicking for abortion rights, but as she walks her son to school or cooks up a terrific Thanksgiving supper for dear friends. Those are the contradictions that create dramatic tension and mesmerizing narratives.

    Books by Philip Vassallo

    Tuesday, December 07, 2010

    Getting Creative, Part 1: Never Stop Working

    I want to end this year with a collection of tips to spur writing creativity. Writers never have a day off because they write from experience and they are always experiencing—even dreaming when they sleep. So let’s start with those sleeping and idle hours.

    Tip 1: Keep a recording device with you at all times. Pen and paper, a mini tape recorder, or a smartphone will do. I use an old fashioned 200-page, 9 ¾" X 7 ½" lined, stitched notebook. You’ll never know when a good idea will hit you. In fact, creative people will say that from periods of deep relaxation come their greatest eureka moments, so all times means all times and all places—the bedside, the restaurant, the car, the beach, whenever and wherever.

    Tapping into your creative mind does not mean straining to think; it just means writing down what you’re thinking about. No idea is insignificant. Comments you hear in passing while waiting in line at the bank, during phone conversations, while listening television commentators, and especially when reading are all fair game. So are the sights you see, from an elevator floor to the deep woods, as are the sounds you hear, the odors you smell, and the flavors you taste. Some of what you experience every day will show up in your next article, story, or play. Record them.

    Sunday, December 05, 2010

    AMA Webinar Another Success

    The American Management Association ran my popular webinar, How to Write a Darn Good E-mail, once again on December 3, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Other scheduled dates are January 4 and March 31. The program focuses on the following points:

    • Get started quickly
    • Write attention-getting subject lines, openings and closings
    • Create clear, concise e-mail that gets results
    • Maintain a professional tone
    • Polish your e-mail to perfection
    • Discover the do’s and don’ts of e-mail

    Signing up for this webinar is easy and inexpensive. The value is there, I assure you—as a thousand others who have tuned in before would tell you.

    Books by Philip Vassallo

    Friday, December 03, 2010

    Reverso a Helpful Website

    I ran into another useful site: Reverso, a free translation, grammar, conjugation, dictionary, and thesaurus service. The site comes courtesy of Softissimo, a French-based publisher of linguistic technologies and multilingual solutions for corporations, governments, and consumers. It is easy to use and rich with practical advice. It’s definitely worth a look:

    Books by Philip Vassallo

    Thursday, December 02, 2010

    Voice, Part 11: Changing Active to Passive

    In this final post of the active-passive voice series, I’ll turn to how to change active voice to passive voice.

    In the November 1 post, I gave three reasons for preferring passive voice. If you find yourself in one of those situations, simply focus on the people or things that are acted upon by making them the subjects of the sentence. Examples:

    Active: The fire department is extinguishing the fire.
    Passive: The fire is being extinguished.

    Active: The lab technician examined the specimen.
    Passive: The specimen was examined.

    Active: Fred might make a mistake.
    Passive: A mistake might be made.

    The bottom line: Know the difference between passive and active, know when using one is better than using the other, and know how to transpose sentences either way. I wish you good luck—or good luck is wished to you.