Tag Archives: story

Writer love: 2nd Teen Story Slam was amazing

Last November, a small circle of writers and I tried something daring. We asked local teens to come out and read something they’d written to a live audience. It could be a poem, a confession, a chapter from a novel in progress, or a short story. The uber-talented (and literary award-winning!) teens in our after school program weren’t so sure about standing in front of a bunch of strangers, but a handful signed up. We thought we’d have an intimate circle of intrepid readers, and we were cool with that. Well, our literary event, Teen Story Slam, WENT OFF! We packed a giant house wall to wall,  on the night of the World Series no less. It was an historic outpouring of enthusiasm for the spoken word. Naturally, the students begged us to do it again.
With the support of Island Cool Frozen Yogurt, the Kitsap Regional Library, and the Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network, we threw another lit party, and packed another venue. The stories were outstanding!
As a teen writing mentor, I’m so thankful to each teen for making this special event happen–again. It gives me a such a warm heart to see these young women and men choose to come out with their parents and friends and share their creativity.
The peer support was overwhelming. Local teens and their friends came early and grabbed the couches and floor space directly in front of the mic. They demonstrated such love, encouragement and acceptance of one another’s words and efforts. Wow! I’m just so thankful for them and for our Teen Story Slam team of organizers. It’s a privilege to share these kids’ writing journeys. Teen Story Slam is good for the heart!

Teen writing co-mentor Margaret Nevinski said, “What a wonderful evening! Our teens are so incredible. So wonderful to see families and other teen supporters show up. These community events are so cool.” There were teens who came to listen but not participate. With the encouragement of friends and the support of a rapt audience, a few pulled up stories on their phones and took to the mic for an impromptu reading. “Nick F. decided to read because his friends did,” Margaret noted. “So proud of our teens.”

Will there be a Teen Story Slam 3? Definitely! We will return in the fall to Westside Pizza for another slam. If you’re considering fun ways to raise funds for non-profit programming, I’d be happy to provide info about organizing your own Story Slam. Just comment below!

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, For the love of writing, Your highest potential

Finally, a Simple Solution to Handling Backstory

cslakinbookI spend a lot of time thinking about my character’s motivation. If you don’t believe me, you should see some (unpublished) stories I wrote a few years back, where character origins and backstory flood the pages where plot and emotional reaction ought to be. I’ve learned much about when and how to reveal the past, and have reined myself in considerably–but apparently not enough. The other night at my critique group, I was reading Chapter One of my new book aloud and felt my cheeks warm as I realized what I was reading was straight-up backstory–in my opening pages! Ugh. Como dices, “info dump?”

Author and editor C.S. Lakin solved my problem with her post, How the Rule of Three Can Help Writers Avoid Backstory Slumps

Here are Lakin’s ideas:

Rule of Three “For every three sentences (or in some cases, paragraphs) of backstory, go back to the present scene at least briefly, to remind readers where the character is actually on stage,” she says. Don’t leave the present action to go on a long tangent. Keep the present action active, even when indulging in a flashback.

First Chapter Backstory Rule “My colleagues all agree that first chapter backstory, if used at all, needs to be short and woven in and around the present action,” she points out. I will be examining my first chapter to see what I can cut or streamline. “For every detail but the most crucial, save the backstory for after readers are committed to your character.” I think this is incredibly important. In my case, I think I was trying to build sympathy for my character for what he’s been through in the past. If I dig deeper and write with subtlety and compassion, I ought to be able to win my readers’ “commitment” without playing that victim card. Lastly, Lakin recommends we, “Use the past perfect (had) only at the beginning and the end of a backstory bit.”

Double Backstory Have you ever read a story within a story, and became confused or read it twice? A word about backstory within backstory: don’t do it. C.S. Lakin has a great approach to handling this dilemma. She calls it her Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule. Read about it in her full post.

C.S. Lakin is the author of several books (contemporary fiction, fantasy, and YA SciFi). She’s  a copyeditor, a writing coach, a mom, a backpacker, and a pygmy goat expert. She teaches workshops on the writing craft at writers’ conferences and retreats. If your writers’ group would like to invite her to facilitate a workshop, contact her here.

Do you have your own formula for where or when backstory should appear? What methods of revealing backstory do you use? Comment below or chat with me on Twitter at @TheRJLacko.

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Story Prompt Monday: Sometimes Your Closest Confidant is a Stranger

“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”

I love this quote from John Steinbeck. While emulation of our literary heroes may prove worthy practice when starting out, our goal as writers is to sharpen and develop our own voices. We look to the masters as teachers–why not look to them also for inspiration?

steinbeckIf you’re familiar with this quote, let go, if you will, of what Steinbeck intended. Make it your own. If you are experiencing writer’s block, or looking for a hook for your next short story, I invite you take this one sentence for a creative walk through your own imagination.Who do you envision is speaking? And about whom?

1. Do you feel this sentence reveals wisdom and experience? Is it an older person looking across the table at a relative or loved one while having a revelation about something they may have just said or did to cause the narrator to wonder whether they’ve ever really known them?

2. Does this voice sound like a dramatic teen to you? Someone who questions whether anyone see him or her for what or who they are, below their own wel–crafted albeit misguided facade?

3. Is the narrator a disappointed or heart-broken spouse?

4. How about a life-altering experience? An unexpected request for divorce, the untimely death of an innocent, a devastating fire–extreme, uncontrollable forces can ravage one’s point-of-view irrevocably, making everything one might have believed become questionable, fallible, broken.

Where does this quote take you? Please share in the comments below. Include a link to YOUR creative writing, please! Or, chat with me on Twitter @TheRJLacko (#storypromptmonday)

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Using Dream Analysis to Develop Your Fictional Characters

Have you ever been chased by someone in your dreams? Been naked in public? Flown like a bird around a city? Or just felt utterly lost in a maze-like building? There are twelve basic dream patterns that all of us dream, regardless of who we are, what we do or where we live.

Olessia Kantor of EnigmaLife.com

Olessia Kantor of EnigmaLife.com

An in-depth knowledge of our characters enriches every story we write. Most writers begin with a detailed Character Traits worksheet. Whether you use every item on your worksheet in your story isn’t as important as getting to know the heart of your fictional characters. Once you have a firm connection with and understanding of WHO they are, it makes the labor or drafting your story easier: you know how they will react to event or obstacles, you’ll know what they might retort and what they’d never say. You know what they’ll eat in a restaurant, or why the color chartreuse makes them crimson with fury. Even better, when you’re stuck, looking for ways to add tension or motivation, looking deeply into your characters’  hearts and minds helps uncover possible plot turns, arcs, and revelations.

Dream interpretation guru Olessia Kantor, founder of EnigmaLife.com explains, “Universal dreams are shaped by local forces in your life.” Your character s dream could be influenced by four things:

  • His/her biological heritage
  • His/her general cultural heritage
  • His/her local subculture
  • His/her personal experience

There are 12 universal dream patterns that all of us dream:

1. Being chased and attacked/Being in love or embraced: Often these dreams occur when you are trying to understand circumstances that you cannot overcome.

2. Getting injured or dying/Getting healed or reborn: Reflect the dreamer passing from one stage of life to another.

3. Having vehicle trouble: These dreams indicate you may be overspending energy on a situation

4. Damaged or lost property or on fire/Property improvements: Reflections on personal changes

5. Poor performance/Outstanding performance: To pass or fail at something important to you

6. Being naked or inappropriately dressed/Looking great: You feel concerned about other people s judgment or opinions.

7. Missing transportation/Happily traveling: This dream denotes your life s journey

8. Machine malfunctions/No malfunctions: Points to a passive approach to life, giving others your power

9. Natural disasters/Natural beauty: Reflect an appreciation for the world and happiness

10. Being lost or trapped/Finding new places: Indicates you are struggling to find a sense of direction or are losing your internal compass

11. Haunted by the dead/Guided by the dead: There is unfinished business with a loved one

12. Falling or drowning/Flying or swimming: The dream is facing a major choice they must make that defines personal failure or success

Olessia provides free personalized dream analysis via her website, EnigmaLife.com. Former journalist Olessia Kantor went on to become an art historian, a gemologist, an entrepreneur, and always a storyteller. “I have a passion for the unknown, for mysteries, for the enigmas in our world.” Follow Olessia on Twitter @EnigmaLifeWorld, or email her at OK@enigmalife.com.

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How to Use an Unreliable Narrator in Your Story

The character who is an unreliable narrator can be one of the most powerful tools available to a writer, telling the readers a story that the reader cannot take at face value. In this post, Now Novel, an excellent resource for writers, explains: “The unreliability may be obvious to the reader throughout the novel, may be revealed gradually or may come as a single revelation that results in a major plot twist. This may be because the point of view character is insane, lying, deluded or for any number of other reasons.”

In my novel, Radio Head, protagonist Shelby has undiagnosed schizophrenia. From her point of view, everyone has a song inside–and she can hear it. The reader is drawn into what may prove to be magical realism, or possibly the delusions of a mentally ill young woman.


What does the writer stand to gain from using an unreliable narrator to tell a story?
What is the purpose of the unreliable narrator in fiction? How can the writer ensure that the reader understands that the narrator is unreliable?

Here are highlights from the post:

The narrator is unreliable by the very nature of who that character is. Some stories are related by narrators by who are such terrible people that they cannot tell their stories objectively. In general, even people who commit the worst crimes do not go around thinking of themselves as monsters; they justify their actions to themselves. In Lolita, Vladimir Nabakov signals Humbert Humbert’s unreliability to the reader in a number of ways such as his outrageous claims, his endless justifications for shocking acts and his contempt for others. Alex from A Clockwork Orange is another example of a reprehensible character sharing his unreliable narrative of violence and mayhem with the reader.

The unreliable narrator can also be used to great effect in stories of crime and mystery. Both Agatha Christie’s classic novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and the recent Gillian Flynn best seller Gone Girl employ unreliable narrators whose lack of reliability is crucial to the construction of the mysteries at the hearts of both novels. In these types of books, the reader starts out trusting the narrator and it is only as the story goes on that something begins to seem amiss.

The unreliable narrator is not always deliberately deceptive. Sometimes, a narrator is unreliable due to youth or naïveté. The young autistic narrator of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon or the five-year-old narrator of Emma Donoghue’s Room are simply reporting the world as they understand it. These books rely on the readers to make inferences based on clues from the narrators and an assumption from the outset that due to the ages and circumstances of these characters, they are not always accurately interpreting what is happening around them.

The unreliable narrator can be of particular use to the writer of horror and supernatural fiction or fiction in which the writer wants the reader to question the line between fantasy and reality. A  recent example is Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi in which the reader may increasingly wonder about the reality of events as described by the narrator.

A narrator can be unreliable due to having incomplete or incorrect information although initially neither the narrator nor the readers is aware that this is the case. The narrator of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier initially misunderstands nearly everything she learns about her new husband’s dead wife, and therefore, the reader does as well.

Read the remainder of the post to learn how Lionel Shriver combined several of the above types in We Need to Talk About Kevin. The post also outlines the dangers of using an unreliable narrator and how to avoid them.

How have you used the unreliable narrator in your own writing?

Now Novel  is an organized, easy to use novel writing method. We help motivate and structure your writing process. Follow Now Novel on Twitter @nownovel.

Follow me on Twitter! @TheRJLacko

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POV shift: I moved to an island.

A hiking trail near my new house

A hiking trail near my new house

A month ago, my family moved from Orange County’s endless summer to a small(ish) island off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.

It’s the beginning of summer, and the weather has been sunny and warm, so climate-wise, not much of a shift. But that’s only the climate. Every other aspect of our lives has changed; (one might expect more blog posts, given the circumstances). I’ll try to explain why I haven’t been more “splain-y.”

My children are at Wizard Camp today, in the woods, in the pouring rain. They are beyond thrilled. Subjected to hot, sunny, blue-sky day, after blue sky day, after blue sky day all their wee lives, today’s downpour has been nothing short of a miracle. (The cat and dog disagree.)

I haven’t written (a blog post) or worked on my summer plan for a four-part novella because I’ve been stuck. Oh, it isn’t writer’s block, quite the opposite. So much new-ness is like a walking around with a microscope in front of my face. Every facet of our new world is fascinating, different, worthy of examination. I’m stacking up ideas for stories (which may or may not be interesting to anyone but me.)

I am in love with this place, and with that love comes the fear of the unknown, the hopes for what could be, the doubtful vigilance for any potential heartbreak.

I think the primary obstacle blocking my ability to write a draft of my thoroughly outlined novella is that it represents a past, a past I’m ready to leave behind. But it also leaves me wide open to the unknown, an unknown threatening to grow in size. Our new house is far from ready–we’ve contracted extensive renovations and are living in a less-than-ideal rental until our house is complete. Anyone who’s ever dared to renovate knows deadlines are to be laughed at, ignored. Life will always throw curveballs, the only thing we can really count on is change (and taxes and death. And cute shoes. Always count on cute shoes.)

It’s time for this writer to give up fear in favor of wordcount. So here I am, today, writing the following as my commitment:

I love my new life. I cherish where I’ve been and I am ready to say good-bye. I welcome whatever is before me. The motivated, creative, compassionate writer is awake in me. It is time to write.



Filed under For the love of writing

Kill Writer’s Block Now: The Fast Track to Creativity Starts Here

Staring at a blank page?

No me, my friend; I’m already off and writing this blog post, charmed by the prolific Charles Bukowski, “Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” (The Last Night of the Earth Poems)

Garnering the wisdom of two of my favorite writing instructors, I’m here to solve your blank-page-trauma in only five minutes. Yes, you can be power-typing a brand new story before a fresh pot of tea is ready. Here are my tried-and-true, never-fail rules for copious creativity:

Know what a story is. If you haven’t already (why haven’t you?) get yourself over to WiredForStory.com, home of famed storycraft maven Lisa Cron. You must learn, internalize and copy/paste at the top of your page Lisa’s mantra:
A story is HOW and WHY what happens (the plot) affects (the protagonist) who is in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal (the story question) and how he or she changes as a result (what the story is about).

If your idea is “Mom makes a peanut butter sandwich,” then apply Lisa’s guideline as follows: Why does she make it?  Does she have a child who will order a burger and fries in the school cafeteria if no PB&J is offered? Slow down the action and tell us HOW she makes it. Make her think about the pattern on the plate, the weight of knife, and whether she’ll choose Tupperware or a ziplock and WHY. How does she feel about all this? When the sandwich is complete, how has she changed by the experience?  Satisfied in her parenting skills, or comforted after concern from pediatrician about high fat and cholesterol in child’s diet? Is she thinking about her own mother, or suffering any symptoms as a result of a nut allergy?)

Writing Prompt Helpers. That peanut butter sandwich prompt was genius Rebecca, but where can I get ideas so shiny and bright? Generally, I have a character or situation to begin with–especially when I’m starting a new chapter in an existing fiction piece. If I’m at ground zero, I Google “writing prompts,” like a trained chimp, ahem. The silliest prompt can elicit some profound thoughts, so don’t be afraid to grab the first one and go.

Brainstorm without borders. For no-nonsense writing advice from an accomplished writer and busy mom, you can’t go wrong with Author Jody Hedlund. I love her brainstorming plan, and I think it’s a must-do at the beginning of every creative venture. Jody says, “Before writing, I come up with pages of ‘what if’ possibilities for my story. I make long lists of all kinds of wild and crazy ideas that I could include in the story. I don’t limit myself. No idea is too stupid. I write down everything and anything… Usually the first few ideas we have are somewhat boring and cliched. So if we stop there, we’ll find ourselves frustrated. But if we list a hundred (or more ideas), then finally we’ll start digging deep enough into the creative well to pull out fresh ideas that excite us.”

This is solid advice, but one HUNDRED? (Yes!)
My next tip will save you from spending the entire weekend on that list…

The 5 Minute Miracle This is my own, personal, golden ticket. I set my phone or kitchen alarm for 5 minutes and I type as fast as my little fingers can. I don’t care about spelling, punctuation, capitalization–nada. I don’t stop to sip my coffee or pet the cat. I type without censure. You may call it stream of consciousness, but it isn’t. Why? Because of Lisa Cron’s mantra at the top of my page. I start with who, and I steer myself toward how, and that leads me to why, and then aha! Even I didn’t see coming the natural progression to the change experienced by my protag as a result. I type these scenarios as fast as I can, and when the alarm goes off, I have several ideas, a bunch of junk to be edited or cut, and some real, solid, satisfying fiction leads I may have taken HOURS to arrive at, without these tools.

Same goes for dialogue. If I’m working a scene and I don’t know exactly what my characters ought to say, I five-minute the heck out of them, and when the buzzer goes I’m surprised to learn what they “really” wanted to say all along.

Set your alarm, find a prompt, and let the five-minute-miracle unfold.

Oh, then tweet me about your adventure @TheRJLacko –or comment below, of course!

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Your highest potential