Teachers Write 7/19 – Thursday Quick-Write

It’s time for your Thursday Quick-Write!  Today, guest author Katy Duffield challenges us to get specific!

Katy writes fiction and nonfiction for children and is the author of sixteen books including Farmer McPeepers and his Missing Milk Cow. Her latest nonfiction title, California History for Kids: Missions, Miners, and Moviemakers in the Golden State, was released this year. Learn more at her website.

My favorite types of writing prompts are those that carry with them certain restrictions. If I’m being honest, I’ll admit that I’m often too unfocused or too indecisive to write to a more general prompt such as “Write about a time when you were angry” or “Describe your childhood bedroom.” These prompts are simply too “wide open” for me. I usually feel that the writing I’m producing with these prompts is too general (too blah!) and often not as applicable to a specific story or work-in-progress. These are, of course, extremely useful prompts, but I seem to make more progress when I am asked to focus in a little tighter using specifics.

A teacher in a creative writing class I recently took was a master at these types of prompts. In working through her prompts, I was amazed by the wide-ranging, atypical work I was creating. I kept asking myself: “Did I write that?” Simply by including certain parameters within the prompts, I was led in surprising directions. I hope you’ll find this type of prompt as valuable as I have.

 Today’s prompt will help you focus on “knowing” your character. As writers, we understand that our characters do not live in a vacuum. If we want them to resonate with readers, they have to feel real, right? One way to bring them to life is to consider what their lives were like before and after your story takes place. Take the character you’re working with (or one you think you would like to write about) and write about a time when that character is five or ten years older than he/she is within your story. Then go back and write about a time where he/she is five to ten years younger (you can adjust the time range, of course, to suit the current age of your main character). And in order to follow the more specific prompt type that I mentioned above, try this—within your writings, include the following: an argument, a food that no one wants to eat, two specific place names, and an article of sports clothing. If you’re writing for a younger audience, such as for a picture book or a chapter book, try coming up with a complete story using the listed requirements—without the age range restrictions—(and here’s a hint for picture book writers—try beginning your story with the argument).

 Ready…Set…Get Specific!

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29 Comments

  1. Posted July 19, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the idea Katy! I noticed that having specific things to write about made me more focused on description of the scene. It also made me think longer about what the characters were saying…here’s my not so quick, quick write. 😉

     5 years into the future:  
    It had been a long day for Kylee and her best friend Cindi!  They’d been hanging out at Chapel Hill shopping for “back to school” clothes! (The new school superintendent did away with the uniform dress policy so the students were free to wear street clothes again!)  The girls were so giddy to have shopped for fun stuff to wear!  No more boring blue, black, khaki for them!  No more red, blue, and yellow polos either!   Their junior year at East High was going to be the best yet!  As the girls walked in the door, the yummy scent of pulled pork filled the air…

    “Mmmmmmm, Mom!  The pulled pork smells awesome!  What else are we having?” (wait for it-here comes the bad news-mom always had a way of serving up some ridiculously disgusting concoction with something good!). 
    “Oh, I made some Chinese slaw!”
    And there it was-the large elephant entered the room-mom always thinks people like it (everyone raves about it like it tastes so great but when she’s not in ear shot, they’re like ewww, why does she keep making this stuff?). I feel bad for mom so I made up my mind that this would be the day to put on the boxing gloves and spar about why she needed to stop making “the SLAW”.
    “mom please quit making that Chinese cole slaw! It’s disgusting!”
    “ky, I thought you liked it”
    “no mom I don’t, and neither does anyone else!”. She looked at me with Mona Lisa eyes. “it’s gross!  All those little pepper and sesame seeds get stuck in my teeth and then I have to fl-”
    “ok, so you’re saying No One likes it?”
    “yes’m,  that’s what I’m sayin!”
    “you mean No One?”
    “R I G H T, not even the dog!”
    “Is that true, Baily.” mom scratched behind Ba’s ears!
    As if on cue Baily let out a loud “woof!”
    Mom slumped into the chair as if she’d been punched in the gut-maybe this wasn’t a good day to get out the boxing gloves…

    “so you’re saying no one likes the Chinese cole slaw?”
    “Yes mom, that’s what I’m sayin'”
    Looking even more deflated, mom buried her face in her arms and mumbled, but I thought everyone liked it!”
    “well, Mom, they, we, I don’t.”
    Suddenly, she stood up, marched to the sink and started ramming the whole dish of slaw into the garbage disposal…the rest of dinner, she didn’t say a word…which was disappointing because I wanted to tell her about our shopping trip!

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      I loved, this, Amy. I was chuckling out loud. I like how the mom has to make sure no one really likes that slaw. And great last line where the kid doesn’t get what she wants because she was too honest. Nice!!

      • Posted July 19, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Diane! I didn’t intentionally write it that way-it’s really just how I imagined the scene-based on 2 things-reflecting on experiences with my own mom when I was a teen and watching my neice with my sister-in-law! 🙂

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Amy,

      This piece absolutely reflects the me-me-me that sometimes accompanies youth. I liked that it began with Kylee’s focus on herself (the shopping trip) and ended with her focus on herself (she didn’t really feel that bad about hurting her mom; she was just upset because she couldn’t share her shopping news). This reveals a lot about her character.

      Thanks for sharing!

      • Posted July 19, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Katy…
        I am still not sure how this scene will fit into the WIP but there is a conflict with how Dusty is so envious of Kylee’s relationship with her mom-I liked the fact that you gave us specific details to include in the quick write.
        Amy

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      Amy,

      Nicely done! You let the dialogue tell the story, and you brought the characters to life (great interaction between the mom and the kids).

      Favorite sentence: “no mom I don’t, and neither does anyone else!”. She looked at me with Mona Lisa eyes. “it’s gross!” – Mona Lisa eyes made me smile.

      Thanks for sharing!

      • Posted July 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        Andy,
        I visualized what I thought the mom’s eyes might look like when Kylee was saying this too her-and the descriptive eyes that popped into my head were the Mona Lisa’s-just that blank stare-the look of nothing really-the try not to cry eyes-yeah, that’s what I was going for.
        Thanks,
        Amy

  2. Brian
    Posted July 19, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    For me, this captures the adolescent roller coaster and its exaggerated everyday highs (shopping is the best!) and lows (dinner sucks!). The dialogue rings true and manages nice surprises, like “Mona Lisa eyes” and pulling in the family dog. Thanks for sharing, Amy.

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Brian,
      Yes, those crazy adolescents right? The transitional terrorists! Yeah, I thought it took the dog’s woof to drive the mom over the edge-I was kind of laughing-because my mom threw away a whole plate of fried chicken one time when I said I saw bugs in the breading…she was so mad!
      I am noticing that my life experiences give me access to details that no one else would know so that when I am writing I can use the experiences as a springboard for my descriptions.
      I wonder if this is why some of the students I work with have a hard time writing-they don’t pay attention to or know the value of their experiences to put into words…just thinking about them too…

  3. Brian
    Posted July 19, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Flash-forward, Ben @ age 16…
    “Ben, what’s taking you so long? We’re going to be late,” Mom called up the stairs.
    “I’m coming,” Ben shouted back from his room as he frantically pawed through the pockets of several pairs of jeans sprawled on the floor. They weren’t going anywhere if he didn’t find the car keys.
    In the pockets, he found five dollars and 29 cents, a check-out slip from the Broomfield library, some gum, but no keys. He’d only had his learner’s permit for a few weeks and he knew, if he wanted to keep driving, he needed to prove he could be responsible for the keys to what he considered his Honda kingdom.
    “Do you need some help, Ben?” Mom called, impatience gnawing at the edge of her voice.
    “Nah, I got it,” Ben said. “Be right down.” He moved around the papers on his desk for the third time, hoping the keys would materialize. He double-checked the pouch of his Denver Broncos hoody. Unsuccessful, Ben felt his teeth and fists clenching. He thought he was past this.
    Since starting high school, he had really come into his own: good grades, vice president of the sophomore class, varsity soccer team. He even liked to eat steamed vegetables now, which proved to himself that he was a different (and better) person. He was in control; he always had what he needed. The last two years almost made it seem like the 14 before hadn’t happened.
    From Mom again, climbing the stairs, angry now herself, “I can’t wait any longer. Are you coming?”

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      I like the tension mounting when his fists clench, makes me tense, too, and added to that, the mom’s impatience. And that’s a funny line about the steamed vegetables and how that proves he is a better person.

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Hi Bryan,

      I love the line “The last two years almost made it seem like the 14 before hadn’t happened.” With these words, the reader really wants to know more about his past. What happened? What was so bad about those years? What prompted him to change? Why is he so worried about messing up now? Intriguing!

      • Brian
        Posted July 20, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        Throughout Teachers Write, I’ve been revisiting this character, Ben, inspired in part by a sixth-grader from last year who’s still on my mind. It’s kind of a WIP, but more scattered pieces than anything coherent. As another piece, I revisited your prompt today, flashng back five years. Here’s the result:

        Ben dug his hand under the twisted bed covers, expecting to find his favorite scrap of blanket. Instead, he felt emptiness. “Where’s Blooey?” he thought to himself. His searching hand frozen in place, he tilted his head and wondered. That’s what his parents told him to do when something was lost: Remember where he had last seen the thing to collect clues to where it might be now. In his mind, he saw himself tucked in with the precious light-blue blanket he’d had since he was two or three years old — its fabric pilly, but soft; silky edges frayed.

        He couldn’t recall if he slept with the blanket the night before, but then he pictured it pooled around him yesterday afternoon when he staged a dramatic car chase through Block City. He yanked his hand from between the covers and hustled across the room. Block City, mostly intact, loomed in front of his closet. One building had toppled, and Ben could see the culprit, a flipped-over getaway car. Two police cruisers were angled behind it. No blanket, though.

        Ben scanned the crime scene a second time, trying to remember more. That’s when he noticed a snatch of blue among three scattered building blocks. He kneeled down to investigate. Between the two cop cars, he saw a thread-thin tatter of unmistakable silk. Ben’s mouth dropped open a little as he considered the possibilities. “Somebody stole Blooey?” he asked out loud.

        • Posted July 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

          Brian, I keep wondering how old Brian is in this flashback. I think I’d be interested to read more about Brian as a teenager and perhaps his history of irresponsibility previous to the episode described where he is searching for the lost keys.

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Brian, Perhaps it is because I have a teenage boy with a learners permit,but this is so credible and believable. Ralph Fletcher talks about slowing down and writing small.. This is an excellent example of taking time to zoom in with describing the places he is looking and the things that he is coming across like the library receipt during his search. You’ve also maintained tension two fold. One with the impatient Mother, and the other that helped develop character ,which todays assignment is all about, He needed to prove that he could be responsible/He thought he was past this. If you go further with this, please share. I am curious if he’ll have flashbacks to a time when he wasn’t responsible.

      • Brian
        Posted July 20, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

        Linda–

        Thanks for the encouragement. I tried the flashback today and posted it just above.

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Brian,

      You can tell how far Ben has come OR not come in the last few years. The dialogue and his actions give the reader a good description of him.

      Favorite sentence: He even liked to eat steamed vegetables now, which proved to himself that he was a different (and better) person. – Excellent!

      Thanks for sharing!

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Brian,
      I want to know now, is he going to find them or is mom going to go off on him? Darn those irresponsible, turned-responsible not quite yet teenagers…OH M G!
      You nailed it! You’ve got an accurate description of what they can be like-it reminds me exactly of what my brother is going through with his 18 and 14 year olds! 🙂
      Thanks for sharing this scene.
      Amy

  4. Posted July 19, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Great exercise, thanks, Katy.

    “Anthony, it’s not like it used to be anymore, so beat it,” I said. I wasn’t taking any more of his eye rolling, superior attitude. I wasn’t the nerd I used to be with a rich dad. I was a football captain at Westchester High, #33 printed right on the back of my jersey, with a rich dad. A potent combination.

    “I just want to talk to you, Melvin, give me a chance,” Anthony pleaded. “We went through a lot back then.”

    “Back Then”. That’s how we referred to the whole Dr. Cat horror, before he got arrested. I didn’t even want to hear his name after that, and wouldn’t let Anthony mention his name, either. But Anthony wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept trying to remind me of the good times we had, if you could call it that.

    “Remember,” he asked shyly, “remember that stuff we had to eat on Rocky Point Island, just to keep ourselves alive? You were so amazing, how you knew the plants that were ok, and the ones that were poisonous. I owe you my life, Melvin. I owe you a lot. I just need to talk to you.”

    Well, too bad, I wasn’t falling for it once again. So what if now Anthony was on the bottom of the social barrel and I was on top. About time.

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Oooooh, Diane. I like the angst, the conflict that this is exuding. Like with Bryan’s piece, I want to know more about the background of these characters–their past relationship. And these are great lines: “So what if now Anthony was on the bottom of the social barrel and I was on top. About time.”

      Do you think that writing about Ben at a later age will help you with his current story?

      • Posted July 19, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        Hi Katy, thanks for your comments! I was actually just talking about whether this exercise helped with the current story with my husband. I loved this exercise, but don’t see right now how it helps the current one. What it does help with, is that it keeps me writing, and keeps me enjoying writing!

        Have you found that writing about the future of the character helps the current one? Curious!

        • Posted July 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          Hey Diane,

          Sometimes it seems to help me “unlock” things that I didn’t know about my character. Seeing how the character responds to future issues or issues from the past help me know them better. I hope you find this works for your character as well. But sometimes, it’s just an exploratory exercise that I chalk up to writing practice! 🙂

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Wow, it sounds like these two guys have a jaded history together…why won’t Mel talk with Anthony…I am wondering what sort of conflict happened to make Mel that intentional about not talking…what did Anthony really do that was so hurtful they quit talking…
      (forgive my ignorance if already shared this-I haven’t been keeping up so well)

  5. Posted July 19, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    First, I’d like to thank Kate for allowing me to be a part of this awesome workshop. I’ve read the posts almost every day, and I’ve loved following the progress of everyone’s writings. 🙂

    Secondly, I’m having website issues, so I apologize to anyone who has tried to access the site and not been able to get in. The problem is being worked on as we speak, so I hope that you’ll revisit in the next couple of days.

    As we “talked” about early on, it’s not always easy to put your work out there. Thanks for being brave and for sharing your work!

    Katy

  6. Wendi
    Posted July 19, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Katy. The specifics really helped me construct this scene.

    “But Dad needs me, Mom.   He needs me to stay home and watch cartoons on the couch with him.  He’ll be lonely without me, Mom.”

    “Get on your jersey and let’s go.”

    “The jersey looks like a dress.  Have you ever been a boy trying to kick a soccer ball with a dress holding your legs together?”

    “No, I’ve never been a boy trying to do anything.  Tuck the jersey into your shorts and hustle up about it.”

    “Tuck the jersey in?  That will make me look all fat.  It will make me hot too.”

    “They’ll give you water and cold grapes at break to cool you off.”

    “I don’t like old sour grapes.  They pop in my mouth.”

    “You eat sour gummy worms and Pop Rocks®, but grapes are bad?  You’re not making any sense, but you are going to get on that jersey and get to the car by the count of ten.  1…2…3…4…”

    (Pop Rocks® is a registered trademark of Zeta Espacial S.A.)

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Hi Wendi,

      This is a realistic interaction between mother and son, and it begs the question–does the boy’s father really NEED him to stay home with him? If so, why? Or is this simply a ploy the boy uses to try to get out of going to soccer practice? And, if so, what about soccer does he dislike?

      As you can probably tell from my replies, I love all the ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs’; they can be so helpful to a writer in fleshing out plot and character.

      Thanks for sharing your writing!

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      How old is he in this scene? I was thinking 7 or 8? It made me chuckle a little because it sounds like my son (who is almost 8) when he’s too tired to do what he’s being asked to do. In fact we had an almost similar scenaro with soccer-which he ended up not liking and hasn’t signed up since. All the running tuckered him out and he didn’t like getting muddy (imagine a boy not liking to get muddy-REALLY?) Yes, really! (this is mainly because the soccer fields where we had our games were very muddy the first season he played)-but anyway, I’m derailed…sorry. I like how the mom was shocked that he would eat the sour candies but not the sour grapes (speaking of sour candy-have you ever tried warheads?)
      Ok, enough. Thanks for sharing your post.
      Amy

    • Posted July 19, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      I enjoyed the dialogue, Wendi, especially the funny part about the jersey.

  7. MsJenx
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    I wish it was shorter, but . . . .

    FIVE YEARS AGO
    “You bring home all these jokers, and I am telling you that met your one in Dre, Bree,” said Khari. We were, my whole family, sitting around watching basketball in the family room so I don’t know where this comment is coming from.
    “Aren’t you random tonight?” I scoffed.
    “Been on my mind for a minute …”
    “And you’re going to bring it up in the middle of family time?”
    “Trying to watch the game here,” my father, Nathan complained over the loud TV.
    “I am trying not to lose my dinner, daddy. Why can’t you eat your meal in your bedroom?”
    She is referring to my father eating pig tails with lima beans. Although my mother would never let him cook it in her kitchen, my Uncle Stan always brings over some when he cooks it. She is the only one bold enough to speak up about it again. I wish she would learn to let it go because Daddy just ignores her and stuffs a spoonful in his mouth and looks at her like “And what?”
    She shivers in disgust then turns to Khari, “Despite daddy not caring about us right now, I need you not to disturb people who are trying to watch the TV, Khari,” agreed Leila. We give each other dap because she saved me just now. She knows I am so over this conversation. Khari tried hooking us up once he found out I went to school with his best friend’s brother who admitted to crushing on me.
    “What are y’all talking about,” inquired my mother, Marcia. She hands Daddy another napkin so he won’t make a mess on his Knicks’ jersey.
    “Nothing important,” answered Leila.
    “Apparently, it is important because Khari is disturbing the game of our favorite team. He is breaking rule number one: no talking unless it is about the game.” My family is die-hard New York Knicks fan. My dad is from there so he pushed his love for the team on us to the point we feel like we would betray him to like another team. Okay, that is a bit extreme, but you don’t wear any other paraphernalia in the house.
    “It is important to Khari, not me so let’s drop it,” I then get up to refill the pitcher with punch. We believe in keeping snacks in the room so we don’t have to miss anything. Some people might call it lazy; we call it convenient. Tonight we are restricted to fluids, except Daddy, due to our lost of appetite.
    Despite my plea and ignoring my escape plan, Khari follows me in the kitchen. “Khari, seriously?” Leila complains because he accidentally trips on her road block or legs. My dad just gives us a real perturb look while my mother looks on with concern.
    As she follows us in the kitchen, my father barks, “They grown kids, Marcia. Let them talk it out.”
    “Watch your game, Nate.” She walks into the kitchen to my brother giving me the stare down and me avoiding his stare at all costs. “Khari, what were y’all talking about?”
    “What Khari wants to do is stay in my love life,” I slam the fridge door. “I can make my own decision on who I want to be with.”
    “Moma was talking to me. I can answer for myself. Moma, you know I look out for my sisters and I just want the best for them. I don’t know why she is aggravated by my concern,” he puts his hand over his heart to add to the drama.
    “This have to do with Bree breaking up with Tony?” asked my mom.
    “And how she could avoid all this heartbreak if she would give Dre a chance.”
    “You can’t be serious?” I laugh off my frustration. I try to start mixing up the punch.
    “That’s too much ginger ale, Bree. Dilute it with the … never mind. Let me do it. You not going to have your father mad at me tonight.” She does what she does best by fixing it, but I wonder how she is going to fix this problem with Dre being more than controlling. “Khari, I understand your frustration, but we have to let Bree make her own decisions.”
    “Moma, I know you are tired of Bree complaining about not meeting the one when the one has been under her nose,” this fool really tries to put his finger under my nose, but I just slap it away.
    “Stop it, you two . . . Now, Khari, either support your sister in her decisions or leave it alone. You can’t keep bringing it up how we ALL believe Dre is the man for Bree.”
    After throwing up my hands in disgust, Leila chimed in, “Not all of us.”
    “You would have to be the anti-Dre of the group,” heckled Khari.
    “You can’t help who you fall in love with.”
    “Can we please let someone talk who has common sense,” beckoned Khari.
    “Shut up, Khari and stop harassing my sister over Dre. They are friends. Not everyone is met to be together .. just friends. Even if y’all did believe that mess, let Bree find that out for herself.”
    “Leila is right, Khari. You have to let this go,” said mom.
    “Whatever, I am just so freaking tired of hearing …”
    “Then I just won’t talk to you about my love life anymore,” I interrupted, “Matter of fact, y’all don’t have to meet anyone that I am dating anymore,” I said.
    “Didn’t I tell you that before, girl. You save yourself a lot of aggravation,” said Leila.
    My mom and my brother just look at me like I am crazy then my mom is the only one who says,
    “Whatever makes you happy, Bree. You can still bring people over. I don’t mind.”
    “I am not trying to hear Khari’s mouth. If you and dad meet him and Khari doesn’t, I won’t hear the end of it. If Khari does meet him, I won’t hear the end of it. To avoid all that aggravation, I will keep who I date to myself.” I go upstairs to my bedroom because I refuse to sit the same room with Khari right now.
    “See what you did,” Leila points at Khari.
    “I’m just being honest. She keeps chasing these pretty boys and gets her heart broken.”
    “You would know because you are one of them.”
    “Whateva, Leila, I am honest with my chicks and that is besides the POINT! Moma, you see the way Dre looks at her, talks about her. Even when he hollaring at another girl, he goes back to Bree.”
    “So what he is head over heels in love with her … Love has to be reciprocated, Khari. Let it go,” Leila leaves the kitchen with the punch pitcher in her hand.
    Mom walks over to Khari and sighs, “As much as you don’t want to admit to it, Leila is right. You have to let this go. Don’t let your pride or know-it-all attitude cause tension between you and your sister. Go apologize.” She nudges him gently.
    “For what?”
    “For not supporting or just accepting your sister’s decisions. I don’t support everything y’all do, but I will accept it. Better yet, I respect it enough to realize that it is your decision and I can’t interfere with it. Go make up with your sister, baby.” She joins Leila and dad in the family room.

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