Archive for the ‘Description’ Category

Writing About Unlikable Characters

Monday, July 30th, 2012

My husband and I returned to our car after shopping when we discovered, adjacent to our car’s passenger door, a disheveled guy in shorts standing next to his rear view window, checking himself out. 

My husband pointed his keys at our car, and we heard the clicks.  We stood at the end of our car and waited a few moments.  I cleared my throat. 

The man picked his nose as he watched his reflection.

(Really.  Not kidding.  Or in Dave Barry’s style, I’m not making this up.) 

We waited some more.

I took in his physical looks; his belly extended beyond his tee-shirt and his plaid shorts.   As he adjusted his mirror and gazed at himself, his greasy hair flopped over his eyes.   Meanwhile, on the other side of his vehicle, his wife loaded their toddler into a stroller. 

Clearly, he wasn’t going to move an inch to let me in the car. 

Bob said,  “I’ll back out the car for you.” 

As I got in the car, I said, “He doesn’t have a clue.”

#@%!, ” said my husband. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Go to a public place with a notebook.  Jot down physical descriptions of people you see.  Be as specific as possible.  Start with general notes and then glance at small details – - the mole on a face, the brown spots on one’s hands.  How does the person walk?  Stand?  Sit?  Does the person have a way of talking that is unique?   Show emotion?

2.  Use some of those notes to create an unlikable fictional character.  Why is this person the way she or he is?  What kind of annoying habits or morals does she/he possess?  Write a backstory for the character which may show motivation for the character quirks.

3.  Write other characters who must deal with the unlikable character.  What will be the problem/conflict/plot of your story?  Is  your unlikable character the main character or a minor character?

4.  Write a personal experience piece about a person you have dealt with who would fit the description of an unlikable character.

Jonathan Franzen – Writing Fiction and Memoir

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, Freedom, two other novels, a work of nonfiction and two collections of essays, gave a talk the other night and I was a fortunate attendee.

He spoke with thoughtfulness and richness.  When the audience asked questions, Franzen didn’t merely pop off answers from the top of his head, but gave them much consideration; the answers were from deep reflections, much like his writing. 

“Reading and writing fiction is an act of social engagement.”

“A character dies on the page if you can’t hear his or her voice.”

“A novel is a personal struggle.  What is fiction after all if not purposeful dreaming?”

“If fiction is easy to write it’s not any good.” 

(He mentioned he wasn’t talking about fun, light reading.)

“Take autobiographical risks.  Trust people you know to love the whole you.  All writers have to be loyal to themselves.”  His brother was similar to the character, Gary, in The Corrections, in that he was also working on a family album.  But Franzen learned not to be concerned because he knew his brother had his own life.  After his brother read the book he called him.  “John?” he said.  “This is your brother.  (Pause.) Gary!” 

“Tone, language, character – - – even a great TV show like Breaking Bad can’t do moral subtly. I’m trying to defeat other media.” 

“A writer wants to be alone in a room.  He’s easily ashamed and is an exhibitionist.”

“I’ve grown a thick skin.  I’ve learned not to Google myself.” 

“I never thought I’d do nonfiction.  I thought it was a betrayal of the novel.” 

Favorite bird at the moment?  The California Towhee.  Why?  Subtle.  Charismatic.  Not shy. 

Just like Jonathan Franzen. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Franzen gave a plug for Memoir Journal, a nonprofit that is a literary magazine and also holds writing workshops.  Check this publication out a    

They are open to submissions for memoir pieces, with $500 and publication as their top prizes.  Write a memoir following their submission policy.   

2.  Choose one small autobiographical detail and combine it with a fictional character in your story.  Make sure it enhances and adds depth to your character and story.   

3.  Create a character with one or all of these descriptions:  subtle, charismatic, not shy.

Writing about Food and Memories

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Warning:  This blog is about food.  So if you’re hungry, it may make you want to reach for something yummy.  If you aren’t, you’re probably safe. 

Friday night fry.  Turtle sundaes made with honest-to-goodness creamy, custard.  (Richer and tastier than ice cream!)  My cousin, Cindy special-ordered German doughnuts called crullers, from a delightful small-town bakery called Bon Ton. Crullers are delicious pastries created with cake-like dough twisted into sticks and covered with light white frosting, from a wonderful small-town bakery, Bon Ton. My cousin, Mary’s fabulous farm-fried egg, white on top, perfect yellowy-goodness inside.  A POP of flavor!  Best of all? The homemade pies my cousin, Paula created – - apple with a flakey crust – - the apples not too hard and not too sweet, but just right – - and a tangy lemon meringue.  What could be better?

The last time I had a homemade Wisconsin pie – - made just right – - was when I was seventeen.  (Thank you, Mom, if you can read this in that parallel universe known as heaven.)  I left for college and came home for visits when she created the most fabulous cakes and cookies.  Perhaps because I didn’t come home during apple-picking season, I didn’t have eat another of her apple pie wonders.

Setting foot on Wisconsin soil brought back memories of picking sweet, crunchy carrots right from the garden, holding them under the hose and then chomping down on them for a quick snack.  I did the same thing with lettuce and even green beans.  Mom would shudder and say, “Raw green beans?  How can you, Elizabeth?” 

But I hated picking them in the early morning, slapping away at Wisconsin’s state bird – - the mosquito.  See what happens when you begin writing about food?  Our sense of taste can bring back a flood of other memories and associations.   

I recall years ago writing a number of articles about one of my passions – - chocolate.  At one point, I received annual gifts from the Chocolate Manufacturing Association.  There was only one problem with my assignments – - the writing motivated consumption of the product.

Stay tuned for more about the Wisconsin trip, and how you can use your travels to motivate and improve your own writing.  Right now, I have to take a break and eat something luscious.  Unfortunately, nothing will taste as good as it did in my home state, or in my memories. 

Writing Prompts

  1. What foods do you recall from your past?  Write about them and any associations they bring.  
  2. Describe a food scene with a character in your current project.  Is your character sitting at a dining table?  Eating on the run?  Include description of the food and your character’s reactions to the food and her/his surroundings.
  3. Let food motivate a poem, song, or other piece of art work. 

Writing Prompt About Nature/Animals

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Let your visual and auditory senses inspire writing.

Watch what happens when a young man saves the life of a hummingbird.  Describe their relationship in a poem or short story.

Writing About Your Life . . . Will it Harm Others?

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Are you interested in writing episodes of your life?  Working on a memoir?  Personal narratives? 

You must be willing to be honest.  What do you owe the other people in your life who will make appearances in your scenes? 

At the moment, I’m writing about how my life intersects with others.  As I read my aunt’s diary for research, one line changes everything. 

Do I include this in my story?  If I do, it alters perceptions. 

I pause.  It is true the people in my narrative have passed on.  But I do not want to cause hurt to anyone on this side or the other.

Yes, it is important to the storyline. 


We must choose our words carefully in our daily life and in our writing. 

Crash!  A dove has just flown into my office window.   The universe has sent me a message. 

Writing prompt:

Choose a moment from your life that has emotional meaning for you.  It can be funny or sad, small or large.  Write the scene using sensory description, dialogue, setting and your feelings.  Set it aside for a few days and then come back to it.  Can you recall any other details you may have left out that are important to the story?  Do you have a journal  you can check which may refresh your memory?  Anyone that was there who might provide insights to the moment in time?

Chocolate Inspires More than Calories

Friday, July 15th, 2011

“Decadent dark chocolate gelato, pure vanilla ice cream, milk chocolate fondue, pure chocolate chunks, marshmallow fluff and whipped cream garnished with a toasted marshmallow served with crispy crepe flakes and whipped chocolate cream,”  I read aloud from Boston’s Max Brenner’s menu. 

I better wipe my lips, just in case I’m drooling.  This describes The Spectacular Melting Chocolate S’Mores Sundae, and as I type this I’m licking my lips in imaginary anticipation.  Do they deliver?

Memories of when Bob and I entered through the brown door (everything is brown, naturally) the scent of chocolate hit us so hard I fell into ecstasy.  As we wobbled our way to the table through chocolate scented heaven and by-passed the chocolate gift shop, I noticed you-know-what-lover sayings surrounding us on the walls and swirling-dessertish wallpaper.  When waiters delivered food to surrounding tables, it looked too good to be true.  (Yes, I know this is a cliché, but in my chocolate coma flashback now, I can’t be bothered.)

We shared a beyond-good panini.  Okay.  The best grilled panini on the planet.  Maybe somewhere between these two statements.  (Remember, I’m still in my chocolate heaven here . . .)  The crunchy toast was covered with salty black olive pesto.  This complimented the melty cheese, fresh tomato, spinach and perfectly seasoned chicken.  

But the best part so far?  The crisp the waffle fries, dusted with chili and cocoa powder. 

“Do you need to look at a dessert menu?” asked the waiter. 

I liked that he assumed we were ordering dessert.  Of course this is the real reason anyone comes here. 

“Yes,” I said.  “I can’t recall exactly which sundae it was that I’d like to order.” 

It was even better than the one above.  Or at least I think it was, as I didn’t try the one I described to you.  The one Bob and I shared had the smooth chocolate gelato, the fabulous vanilla ice cream and melted marshmallow, but it also had crunchy pieces of graham crackers and the taste of peanut butter.  On either side of this creation were two small cups.  One was filled with whipped cream and the other white chocolate.   Oooh la la!

Why did I agree to share this sundae with my husband?  I never knew anything could taste this good.  The salt of the peanut butter complimented the sweet.  After we finished licking everything clean, we sat in a sweet stupor. 

When the waiter came back, I asked him if there were plans to bring Max Brenner out to California. 

“Yes,” he said.  “They’re opening one in L.A.” 

Hmm.  A bit of a drive for a sundae.  “Would he consider San Francisco?”  I asked. 

“Drop him an e-mail,” he suggested.  

I will. 

Writing prompts:

1.  Write a poem or personal narrative about the best dessert or dish you’ve ever eaten. 

2.  Describe your favorite foods.  What makes them your favorite?  Recall their tastes and textures.

3.  What are some good (or bad?) food memories?  Funny food memories?  Embarrassing food memories?  Food gift memories?  Making food memories?  Restaurant memories?  Picnic memories?  Eating on a train or plane memories?

4.  Create a dessert for a rabbit,witch, juggler, or old man with no teeth. 

5.  Create a new recipe for you and your family.  Then make the new recipe.  How would you change it to perfect it after you’ve made it?  Write a review of your own cooking!

Ice Cream For Breakfast! Harry Potter, Wacky Doodles and More!

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011
JULY 7   8:00am – 9:00am

Ice cream for breakfast!  

Treat yourself one morning this summer and start the day off with vanilla or chocolate! 


JULY 14   8:00pm




Come watch Harry Potter #7 part 1 before you go to a midnight screening of part 2!

Harry Potter trivia and prizes! Costumes optional. 


JULY 19   3:00pm – 4:00pm
Fancy Nancy Afternoon Tea
dress in your fanciest clothes and have fancy cookies, fancy tea, and learn the fanciest manners, dahling!


July 26   2:00pm – 3:00pm

Wacky Doodles!

Create all sorts of kooky characters in this super-fun doodle workshop!

*With artist Michael Slack!*

August 1   5:00pm – 6:00pm

Pet Parade!

Bring your pet and meet others–prizes for best dressed pet, largest pet, smallest pet, and many more categories!


August ??


August 16   7:00pm – 8:00pm
Karaoke for Kids!
Come rock out with us.


August 25   4:00pm – 5:00pm
Bring a book you’d recommend (or two, or three…) and leave with something new (or two, or three…)! 


The Storyteller | 925 284 3480 | 30 Lafayette Circle | Lafayette | CA | 94549


Writing Prompts:

1.  You have a very funny pet.  What is it?  Create the most unique pet in the world.  Describe it.  What does it do, that no other pet in the world can do?  Take it to the Peculiar Pet Parade!  What other pets march and perform?   Be wacky and wild!

2.  Use the characters in Harry Potter to write a new chapter of your own.

3.  Create Wacky Doodle art!

4.  The fire alarm just rang.  Write a story from the 

a.  fire’s point of view  

b. the fire engine’s point of view   

c.  a person trapped in the fire  

d.  a rescuer going into the fire

Hot Button Memories

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

While choosing fresh vegetables at a farmer’s market, I wandered upon an unusual jewelry display.  A woman had fashioned bracelets and rings out of old buttons that acted as a door to decades in the past. 

“Wow!  I can see this on a 1940s coat,” I said, examining a large green button. 

The woman at the booth pointed to a pink button on a bracelet that jangled at her wrist.  “I remember the exact housedress my mother wore,” she said. 

Just the other day when I rummaged around in my closet I came upon a box of buttons my mother had given us. When my son was little he loved playing with those buttons.  Now it was my turn to treasure them.  “If I gave you some buttons will you make me. . .”

“Sure!  People do it all the time,” she answered. 

I couldn’t wait to get home.  Digging out the button box, I felt like a kid, spreading the buttons on the table, sorting them into colors.  Sadly, I didn’t have any concrete memories of the outfits they had been attached to.

Until one flipped over.  There!  Black and white material, still on the button!   An image of my mother wearing the white and black dress she had made, her trim figure standing with her enviable posture next to me in church, with a little black veil on her head.  Or if we had forgotten our veils, we’d attach a piece of Kleenex with a bobby pin.

Of course, that day at the farmers market I walked out of there with a $15 bracelet, and a longing to come back with my very own buttons. 

Writing prompts:

  1. Find an object of your past that brings a flash of an old memory for you.  Write about that memory.  Can you recreate a scene? 
  2. Choose a button or a piece of clothing.  Let it take you back to a memory.  Write about it as if it were today.  Then change it slightly and make it fiction.  What could have happened?  You can star in this yourself, or create a completely new character. 
  3. Interview a member of your family about a special piece of clothing.  What was their favorite thing they EVER wore?  Why?
  4. Write about your favorite piece of clothing.  What makes it special?  Using details, describe what it looks like and how it makes you feel when you wear it.

Throw Unusual Characters Together

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

A friend sent me the video below, which made me think of how some of the best writing can come out of making two very different characters interact  in a scene.

What happens?  Will there be conflict?  Friendship?  Humor? 

Add to the mix, make one or both of the characters be a “fish out of water.”   The uncomfortable feeling in an unlikely setting can add to the humor and/or conflict.

* Place a cowboy and a circus performer in a fancy ballroom with a king and queen.   Why are they there?  What happens next?

*A gang of thieves kidnap a Hollywood actress and a Harvard professor.  Why?  What happens next?

*Or write about the unlikely friendship in the video below.  Why did they become friends?  What happens next?

Writing Conference Quotes

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

I attended a writing conference this past weekend.  Here are some quotes, tips and techniques I feel anyone any age may appreciate:

Caldecott winner author-illustrator David Wiesner:  

 (quoting someone’s name I didn’t get – - sorry!)

“Inspiration is for amateurs.  The rest of us just show up and get to work . . . All of the best ideas come out of the process.  Something will occur to you, and then another thing will occur to you . . .”    

Agent Josh Adams made some distinctions between award winners and bestsellers.  (Some of them fall into the same categories.)

 Award Winning Books:  beautifully crafted, indelible voice, lingers in your memory, creates emotional connections, are life-changing 

The White Darkness, Bad News for Outlaws, and Rules are some titles that fit in this category.

 Best Selling Books:  high concept, thought-provoking, page-turning, suspenseful, a fun read         

Charlie Bone and the Red Knight, Sabotaged, and Kiss are high concept sellers.

 Author Alexandria LaFaye 

 If you have a better access to your subconscious, you are a better writer. 

(See!  Me here.  What do I keep telling you about dreams and using the moments as you wake from sleep?)

Triple D:  Every time you use a detail it needs to develop setting, character and plot.  

Center ourselves in the world our characters inhabit.  Our characters should have a distinctive world view.  It should sound if they are describing their world.   Not us describing it.  Figure out how to explain things from the view of the main character.  The character talks about it in relationship to what else is going on in his life. 

Characters can only draw figurative language from their own personal experience.

 How can you write more metaphors and figurative language in your writing?  Read poetry.  Good poets she suggested were Nancy Willard, Cynthia Rylant, Gary Soto, Pat Mora, Janet Wong.  Poets who write adult poetry:  Gary Snyder, Louise Glook, Emily Dickenson, Sylvia Plath. 

 Poetry is about what’s not on the page. 

 Cynthia Lord

 Newbery Honor Winner Cynthia Lord’s words were so powerful the audience gave her a standing ovation and many of us had tears in her eyes when she talked about the story behind the story of Rules.

 What happens when you write a book based on your life? 

What should you write about?

Write a book on challenging personal experiences.   She said that every message in the book, Rules,  is a message for her. 

What to consider as you write your book:

  1. What do I owe the other people whose lives are also tied up in this moment?  (Minimize the impact on their lives.)
  2. Am I willing to “go there” on schedule?  And for years?
  3. Am I ready to be honest? 
  4. Any important moment will have a contrasting emotion in it.
  5. Write what you know.  
  6. If you don’t know, ask yourself, when have I ever felt the same way as that character?
  7. Details don’t have to match, just the feelings.   To help herself remember, she surrounded herself with objects from that town and she saw her handwriting from that time.

Description:   Write what you know through settings and objects using your senses.  Set places where you can visit.  Go and see real things.  What does the air feel like? 

***What surprises you?  This question is gold in the description.

 She acted out a scene in rules where the main character pushes a boy in a wheelchair in a parking lot.  She pushed her suitcase in a parking lot.!   Lord realized there’d be pinecones, holes, cracks, etc and this made her write with more depth.

Find the one feeling of the story and everything revolves around this feeling.