Writing Inspiration: Siblings

sibling quote
Photo by: istanabagus.com

With the holidays coming to a screeching halt, I felt it was time to take a break and get away from the season. We’ve often discussed inspiration and certain things that spark great stories. This week, I’ve been thinking about siblings, their importance, and how they inspire us to be better writers and people.

Our brothers and sisters, blood relatives or not, can help motivate us in ways no one else can. I’m fortunate to have two younger brothers, one 6 years younger and one 12 years younger, and they each add something special to my life. One is more introverted and sarcastic, but his passion for the things and people he loves is contagious. The other is more outgoing and sensitive, but his drive to succeed makes even me jealous. Both are very bright, talented guys who will go far in life.

The Perks

When recently talking to a friend about her sibling she said, “Your sibling is the only person who really understands you and your faults. They know how you were raised and where you came from, and there’s no judgment. Even though we [her and her older brother] are complete opposites in most ways, it’s that foundation and those differences that bring us together … the jabs, the sparring make it fun.”

I couldn’t have said it better. My brothers and I fought when we were younger, but thankfully we have a bond stronger than ever as adults. We are alike and different in many ways, but we were raised similarly. I had it a little harder being the oldest, but it made me who I am today, and I would not trade anything for that. They understand where I’ve come from and who I am, and seldom question my decisions, even when the rest of the world does. We don’t always agree, but we’re always there for one another.

People in a sibling role can remember those little details you forget, making for great stories. They can be a great source when writing because sometimes you have the memory but not the details. I remember one brother acting out The Mask and Aladdin in almost their entirety. I remember the other one dumping an entire case of fundraiser M&Ms and mixing it with baking soda and dish washing liquid when I was supposed to be babysitting him. I got into so much trouble for that …

Helping raise my younger siblings also made me a better mom. I had already changed diapers, rocked a little one to sleep, cleaned up various bodily fluids, and so on, so when it came time for me to have my own, I was somewhat prepared. Over the years, they have become my safe haven at family reunions and holiday functions, and help break the ice when things get uncomfortable in social events. And things always get uncomfortable. As the oldest, I want to set a good example, and I want them to know they can do anything they set their mind to. They help fuel the desire to be a better person.

What If You Don’t Have a Sibling?

My friend also said she was sad she had an only child because her daughter wouldn’t experience the sibling bond. I disagree. I believe you can have a sibling-type person in your life – the kind of friend you’ve grown up or maybe even a close roommate. The kind of friends who get you, the ones who are always there, and you may not always see eye-to-eye, but you know if you need them, they’re there. That’s what it’s about.

This week, try to write a story about your sibling or a person who is like a sibling to you. If you don’t have such a person, pick the person who you fight with the most but still love unconditionally. That sums up most sibling relationships (wink, wink). And if you have an estranged sibling, maybe consider reaching out. As a new year approaches, it may be time to take the step and see what happens. Happy writing!

If You Want to Write: Be Your Character

I’ve read a lot of fiction – good and bad. One common factor between the two seems to be the hardest part to write. Characters. The bread and butter of any story. Sure, you can have a great premise, plot arch, and writing style, but if the characters suck the piece may suffer a worse fate.

In the chapter Microscopic Truthfulness, Ueland urges us to look for the truth within ourselves. I know, I know, it sounds deep and something that many of us seldom find, but this is a different truth. This is a truth most of us can achieve.

Own How You Feel

Human emotion is raw and pure. We seldom write when we are overflowing with emotion because we are afraid of the outcome. During the day, maybe you’re at work where you must be professional and conduct yourself responsibly. At night, maybe you’re out partying with friends or home with your family. Ueland asks us, “but how to single out your true self , when we are all so many selves?”

The trick is to own it. I find myself stepping away from the computer for a few if I receive an email that fires me up. I also take a deep breath and calm down before I confront someone. And because human emotion is so powerful, I have to do these things. What would happen if I didn’t? The idea has some dangerous potential.

However when you write, that is your time. That is your time to get it all out. Scribble down how angry, happy, turned on, drunk, or whatever you are at the moment. The writing will be messy and disorganized, but it will be believable and real. Ueland says, “Active evil is so much better than passive good, which is docility, feebleness, timidity.”

Find Truth in Your Characters

My favorite quote from this chapter: “If you feel like a murderer for the time being, write like one.” And how true that is. In order to write good characters, you must get inside their head. You must be the character. Why do you think Stephen King uses writers as so many of his main characters? What about the wife who writes about making love or an unhappy marriage? What about the child who writes about the kid with superpowers? They are their character.

Sure, sometimes it takes some research and time, but you need to know your characters. By getting in tune with your own feelings, you can tap into others’, making you more observant. The comment I write to new writers the most is “How does this character feel? Show the emotion.” A plot is easy to outline and change, character development takes serious work.

The Challenge

I challenge all the writers out there to keep a journal for one week, even if it’s a notepad on your desk or in your purse. Take 15 minutes a day and write about your day and how you feel – not how you think you should feel, but the real emotion that lies within. You may find it therapeutic, and you’d be surprised how much you learn about yourself. Happy writing!

If You Want to Write: Childhood Memories

“A child experiences things from his true self (creatively) and not from his theoretical self (dutifully), i.e.: the self he thinks he ought to be.” – Brenda Ueland

A child’s imagination is a powerful thing. It’s raw, undisciplined, and fierce. There’s an innocence within a child’s mind that doesn’t hold back or worry about how they should be thinking. My son, who has created countless video games, board and card games, and short stories all before he was 10 years old, simply amazes me. Now that he’s a teenager, he uses software to bring them to life. And because of his drive and creativity, I believe he will become a great game designer.

In this chapter, Ueland urges us to write like a child. She recommends we write about a childhood memory and remember how it felt to be there. Ueland explains that an older person writes from not only their imagination but from their ego and conscious as well. Adults are afraid to write honest details because we’re afraid someone will judge us, or we don’t want to look bad. The exercise is to write about a childhood memory, and although I don’t have full stories with lots of details, one thing tops the list.

Waffles

When my parents separated, my brother and I spent most weekends at our grandparent’s house. On Saturdays, grandma would clean the house and play or make crafts with us. My grandpa usually remodeled something or worked in the yard.

My grandparents. He passed in 2011, but they are still be most amazing couple ever.
My grandparents. He passed in 2011, but they are still the best couple ever.

As great as Saturdays were, Sundays were the best. They had the same routine, but Sundays started in a very special way. My grandparents let me sleep in, sometimes until 10 o’clock, and when I awoke I knew I had a delicious treat awaiting me.

Almost every Sunday my grandparents would make me a waffle for breakfast. There was nothing special about the smell, but it tasted amazing. They would butter the round waffle, which took up the entire plate, and each little square was filled with syrup. They added a sliced peach for each quarter and sprinkled confectioner’s sugar all over it. It was so sweet and so comforting. And I was so hungry.

I still eat my waffles exactly that way. I have never tried any other fruit and get upset if we’re out of confectioner’s sugar. I will not touch a pancake. I realized this year, I had never made my son pancakes. I found myself almost banning pancakes because of my ties to waffles. Strange as it may be, I’ll probably never eat a pancake, but I do cook them now. Our memories can shape us into someone unexpected and cause us to do crazy things.

Another lesson Ueland addresses is that we shape our children. If you want them to be great, you must be great. If you want them to be a musician, you must practice music. If you want them to believe in themselves, we must believe in ourselves. We set the example.

Now, it’s your turn. Think back and try to write about a childhood memory from a child’s perspective, not an adult’s. Try to remember what you were going through or feeling – it may be therapeutic to your soul.

For fun, here’s a recipe for waffles. Maybe you can add your own fruit or make them special for your family!

Writing for Web: Rhetorical Modes

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Write what you know?” Well, let’s challenge that advice. What’s wrong with researching something you don’t know and writing to learn about it and teach others? The important question is: What is your goal?

Chapter 10 discusses rhetorical modes: narration, description, explanation, and argument. These ancient ideas have worked for centuries, but how do you apply it to 20th-century Web writing? It is true that most writing crosses over into several modes, but practicing them separately will give you a better understanding of how they work and how they are effective.

In chapter 10, Felder repeats a lot of ideas from previous chapters, so it’s a little redundant. A better way to present this information is to define what your goal is, and use the rhetorical modes in order to accomplish that goal. If you’re not sure where to start, try these ideas from the chapter:

Narration – Tell the reader what happened. This is great for personal experiences, and try with who, what, where, why, and how?

Description – This mode explains how something happened. These are the nitty-gritty details that can either bore your readers or keep them wanting more. There is a fine line, so make sure you find a happy medium.

Explanation – This makes your writing easier to understand. This mode is more common in explaining processes, cause and effect, and used to compare and contrast ideas. Think simple. Your readers will understand your ideas and find you more credible.

Argument – Who doesn’t love a good debate? Whether it’s a political debate or an argument written for entertainment or discussion, arguments get people talking. Use this mode to persuade your audience to think on their own or side with a particular viewpoint.

Point of View

Another important topic in this chapter is Point of View. POV is very important, but not for reasons you may think. For example, have you noticed this post is written in second person? If so, kudos. If not, it’s no big deal because many people do not pay that close attention.

The important thing is consistency. If you bounce between I, you, and he/she, you will irritate your readers and lose their attention. Here’s a cheat sheet:

First person = I, me, we, our, etc.

Second person = you (Yes, I am writing to you the reader)

Third person = he, she, they, them, etc.

So, before you try only writing what you know, try a topic you know nothing about. Some ideas could be fly fishing, biotechnology, BASE jumping, fashion, teen movies, auto mechanics, sea dragons. Then choose your mode(s) and point of view, and see what happens! You will learn something new and teach someone else through your writing exercise.

And remember, it’s not what you know, it’s what you’re willing to learn.

Writing for Web: Telling a Story

Once upon a time there was a writer typing on a laptop while sitting on the couch. Or maybe at a desk or at a table in a coffee shop?

R. Petty with her laptop (in cartoon format)

However you write it, that opening sentence begins a story. It may lead to a fantasy land full of talking animals or vampires, or to a place familiar and realistic. Either way, it’s a beginning.

This week discusses how to tell a good story. I am not a creative writer, so this chapter was helpful as Felder explained tips on how to write a story. Of course there are the basics, such as plot, character development, and conflict, but I want to zoom in a little closer.

How do you start a story?

Many writers feel this is the hardest part. I know I do, and I will put a book down if I get 50 pages in and I am not interested. The beginning is just as important as the rest of the story and can make or break your content.

New writers may feel they have to set everything up before starting the action, but Felder believes this is a mistake. Her advice is to jump in! Start with a hook. These are the first two to three sentences that start your story, and here are a few ideas to help guide you through them:

  • An exciting event. Maybe you dump your reader in the middle of a race, a robbery, a love scene, or an adventure.
  • An interesting character. Someone who is unusual, someone who thinks unlike most people, or someone who a reader will immediately sympathize with are all ways to use a person as a hook.
  • Put a character into real trouble. Immediately, start with a conflict to create suspense.
  • If you haven’t developed characters yet, what about a strange event? An event that stands out and urges the reader to keep going to discover the outcome.
  • Many authors love to set a scene. This gives readers a chance to envision a world that may be different from their reality. Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Narnia.
  • Love and learn the language. Don’t use the Thesaurus for evil just to replace words; think about how you want to say it. What do you hope to express with your opening? What do you want your readers to see? Set the scene without being too wordy and long-winded.

You may be wondering how this all applies to Web writing? I wondered the same thing, and unfortunately Felder only gives one example of how this applies: Your home page should hook your readers. As I read more, I realized this was it. So, I looked at a few other sites for ideas and discovered you can use a hook to start an article, short story, or simple blog post. And, you can use more than words. Your hook can be a picture, video, slide show, or podcast. In fact, with Web writing you have more options than in print.

So, as you think about your next great idea, think of a good hook. How will you draw your readers in and keep them coming back? If you’re struggling for ideas or just need inspiration, check out some of my favorite stories with solid hooks:

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

The Black Cat

A Little Cloud

The Lottery