Teachers Write 7/30/13 Tuesday Quick-Write

Guest author Shutta Crum returns today with a writing prompt designed to follow up on yesterday’s mini-lesson, “Cornering Your Characters.”

If you read the mini-lesson from yesterday’s post you know that I’m a believer of getting your characters into jams and firmly eliminating “easy out” alternative choices along the way—so that your character(s) must choose the path you want him/her/them upon. Too often, we writers—once we know where we want the story to end up—take off head-long in that direction getting our characters into all kinds of problematic situations and forgetting the important second half of this technique. We also have to block off the other paths—paths that reasonable people (characters) might take, given the circumstances of the moment.  By eliminating these your reader is much more likely to suspend any disbelief and travel along happily for the ride . . .  er, read.

The stop and block:

  1. Choose two characters you are working with, and a setting.  Or you can simply pick three words from the dictionary, at least one pertaining to a character and one to a setting. (Randomly, I chose:  cinema, furrier, and incurable.)
  2. Do a 5 minute “automatic” write. No rewriting or editing. Write whatever comes to mind. Don’t wrap up the scene.
  3. Stop at a point where the primary of your two characters is about to do something important.  (My incurably insane/romantic furrier has just walked into a cinema with a mink stole he made for the woman of his dreams. He notices she is attending the movie with another man. I stop.)
  4. List 4 or 5 actions your character could take at this point—reasonable or crazy.
  5. Choose one of the more unlikely actions as the one you want your character to do.
  6. Choose another that is a very reasonable action.
  7. Now start writing again with the intention of making your character’s crazy choice seem logical at the moment and, more importantly, making the reasonable choice seem illogical. (My choices:  the furrier could realize she is not for him and walk away, walk away and decided to get his revenge later, accost the man/woman, drape his stole around the woman and try to pull her into his arms, or pull a pistol from beneath the mink stole. Hmm . . . the reasonable choices are to walk away—even if he’s insane. He could get revenge another day, if he wants. So I need to block those choices. Perhaps the asylum attendants are looking for him and they are just outside the entrance? OK. So I write a line or two indicating why he can’t walk away . . . now I can write on. “ Slowly he . . .” )
  8. Repeat this stopping, listing and blocking periodically as you work on your manuscripts to make sure you’ve tied up all the loose ends. Then your readers won’t complain, “But wait! Why didn’t he just . . . ?”

 Share a few lines of what you worked on in the comments today if you’d like!

6 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/30/13 Tuesday Quick-Write

  1. I don’t have a current character I’m working with, so just did this quick write before heading off to work. Fun! (By the way, the italics I used for Sheri’s thoughts in the Word document did not transfer when I pasted it here, so just imagine them!)
    Sherri could tell Mick was off his game somehow, but couldn’t pinpoint what exactly what it was. His uniform was pressed and clean, his eyes were clear, and he smiled to each of the passengers as they boarded the plane. But there was something….

    She tried to distract herself with her pre-flight routines, but that nagging feeling wouldn’t go away. It’s not like I could just decide to get off the plane right now, it’s too late, she thought. But was it? What if I actually did become suddenly sick? If I were throwing up right now, they wouldn’t expect me to continue, right? The idea of flying up into the sky with Mick at the controls was becoming more and more concerning to her (What WAS it??), and the idea of feeling too sick to work was not only plausible, but actually starting to feel like the truth. I can do this.

    Just then Jackie walked by and whispered to Sherri, “Why does Alex have it out for you, Sher? What an asshole. Don’t worry – he’s got nothing. You just keep showing up to work and doin’ your thing, and soon enough he’ll move on to someone else who actually is unreliable and incompetent. Your job is safe – I can feel it. And I’m never wrong about these things, Sher, never. You just wait and see.” She lightly squeezed my hand, gave me a wink, and moved past to help the passengers with their overhead luggage.
    With that Sheri’s resolve vanished. Her thoughts automatically went to Sarah and Myles. Would they be asleep yet? Tomorrow was a big day for Myles – his first time playing a solo in the concert. He’d been practicing for weeks. He’s really getting very good, thought Sherri, and those lessons are not getting any cheaper. Was it worth quite possibly risking her job by faking an illness just to get off the plane right now over a stupid feeling? All Alex needs is one excuse and he’d be on her like – what was that expression? – white on rice, that was it. No, it wasn’t worth it. One day illness might actually strike, and that’s when she could pull something like this off. Mick looks fine, I’m probably just exhausted from not getting a good night’s sleep, Sherri reasoned. And with that her decision was made. A decision that changed the course of her life.

  2. I was 16 when Momma me they’d be splittin’. Can you believe that? Been together almost 20 years and now they was just gonna go their separate ways. Truth was, Veronica told me, that Momma found another man. Jacob Johns was a widower and she’d been workin’ for him, bakin’ and cookin’ meals, nobody cooked like Momma, cleanin’ house, tendin’ to his garden. Guess she was tendin’ to other things, too, but who could blame her? She sure wasn’t gettin’ no kindness from Daddy. That miserable SOB. Never had a kind word for nobody unless it was used to put someone else down. Momma could spend all day makin’ up all his favorites for a Sunday dinner, and he’d do nothin’ but complain, “Chicken’s kinda dry, Louellen,” or “Where are those dilly beans I like? Whatchu mean we’re all out? I told you last year you shoulda put up more of them. Damn, woman! You never listen to me.” Never a “thank you,” or any other polite word. Heck, it probly made Momma feel good to hear some kind words from Jacob Johns. Only problem was he used them all up ‘fore the marriage, cuz he sure didn’t have many after they was married.

    Things were happenin’ fast, and no one was really considerin’ about Veronica and me. Veronica was all set, really. She was settin’ to marry Ernie in a couple of months, and they’d go off and live on their own, probably have some babies before you know’d it. Truth is, I didn’t know where my future was. I was 15½ and far as I heard no one was talkin’ about where I’d end up. Would I be goin’ with Momma to live with her and Jacob Johns? Was I stayin’ here in Braintree with Daddy? Was he even stayin’ here? Nobody talked about it, just like it didn’t matter, and to me, it was all that mattered.

    One mornin’ Momma started to hint about things. You know, Arthur, Uncle Leland said the other day that if you wanted more work down Greenwoods you could have it. They like you down there, say you’re a good worker. You may want to consider it. He said they even have a few trailers set up back that you could stay in. Daddy didn’t say nothin’. That’s probly good, because there was nothin’ but meanness comin’ out of his mouth. That’s usual, but because of the split, it was even more than usual.

    I wasn’t sure what to do about Greenwoods. I liked workin’ there, though some of the other guys teased me ‘bout my size. I’d gotten used to them callin’ me Shorty, it didn’t bother me none. They thought it did. I just didn’t know whether I’d be able to take on more hours, cause I was already stretchin’ it tryin’ to take care of things with my cows and pigs, and now I’d have Veronica’s chickens to tend to and the garden. My cows meant the world to me. I’d raised each one up from a baby calf, and some of them were prize winners at the 4H Fairs. I’d brung them down to the Tunbridge Fair and over to Bradford and Chelsea. Every time they won blue ribbons and the judges would praise me on what a fine job I was doin’ raisin’ them. Said they’d be worth a lot of money when they got a bit older.

    Things of Momma’s was bein’ packed up in boxes. There’d be some hasslin’ between her and Daddy about what she could take and what stayed. Most of the kitchen stuff was goin’ and some of the furniture in the livin’ room. I never knew, but I guess some of the furniture was old and had been her grandmas. Mostly, Daddy stayed away from Momma, he spent a lot of time in the barn, though I don’t know what he was doin’ out there. “Boy, bring me my supper out here,” he’d growl as I went inside for dinner. He’d be there when I milked, putterin’ off in the corner or doin’ some figurin’ of who knows what. I don’t know when he came inside anymore, and frankly I didn’t care. I figured he and I was stuck with each other, so I tried to stay out of his way and give him nothin’ to fuss at me about.

    Veronica brought it up one day while I was out milkin’. “What are you going to do when Momma and Daddy split, Arthur? Do you know yet?” Busybody Veronica, got to know everybody’s business.

    “I don’t know. Nothin’s been said ‘bout it,” I continued milkin’, hopin’ shed go away.

    “You know you can’t go and live with Momma and Jacob Johns. He already told Momma that he wants her and nobody else.” That hurt. I couldn’t imagine Momma would agree to those terms. Was she really turnin’ her back on us, too. I understood why she’d turn on Daddy. But what’d Veronica and me ever do?

    “It don’t bother me none. Ernie and me we already found an apartment in Randolph we’re gonna live in for now. Put the downpayment on it and I can move in in two weeks. That way I can get it all fixed up before we get married. Ernie, he’ll move in after we get married, after all…” Veronica blushed, not finishin’ that thought.

    I grinned ‘bout that, but I was still troublin’ about Momma. Well, guess I wouldn’t be livin’ with her.

    Two days later my decision got made in a way that to this day makes my blood boil. I was comin’ home from Greenwoods, havin’ worked there all mornin’ and was settin’ to have me a piece of that strawberry-rhubarb pie I saw in the ‘fridgerator this morning before beginnin’ my chores. What I saw when I turned into the driveway though surprised me. There was a cattle truck and my prized jerseys were being loaded in. I ran.

    “Whatcha doin’ with my jerseys, Mister? Those are my cows? Where you takin’ them?

    “They’re my cows now, son, just paid your Daddy good money for them. More than they’re worth. Five hundred dollars for these mangy lookin’ cows. Shoulda had your daddy pay me to take them out of here.”

    I knew he was lyin, those were prize winners. “Those are my cows. He had no right.” Just then, I seen Daddy comin’ out of the barn, money in hand, countin it out to make sure it was all there. “Daddy! What’re you doin?” I yelled. “Those are my cows!”

    Before I knew it I was down in the dirt, the backhand of Daddy’s gloved hand havin’ whopped me across the jaw hard. “Don’t you sass me, boy. You say those are your cows, hell, says who? They was in my barn, eatin’ my hay, what ever made you think they were yours?”

    “I bought each one of those jerseys, Daddy. You know I did.”

    Well, whatcha gonna do now, boy? Cry like you did when Uncle Leland shot his cows when the barn caught on fire? Oh, boo hoo! Poor me. You disgust me, boy. Get out of here.”

    Truth was, tears were seepin’ out of my eyes just then. But the moisture wasn’t comin’ from my eyes, it was from my heart. It was my heart dryin’ up, fillin’ full of more and more hatred for my daddy than I’d ever had before. So “get” I did. I left. Went back to Greenwoods, asked for more hours and a place to stay. And never returned.

  3. This was a hard prompt. To be honest, I couldn’t really do it as a quick write. Instead I went back and forwards, thinking about escape routes and trying to block them off.
    What Melody really should do is talk to the social worker – or somebody.

    Melody was determined she wasn’t going to go on this visit. She didn’t want to see her Daddy, not after the awful things he had said about her mom. But he wasn’t the one who came to get her. Instead it was her bother Edwin. Edwin was just a bit more than a year older than Melody and had always been a part of her life. When he came in, punched her in the arm, picked up her suitcase and said, “come on, Mel! You have to come on!” He smiled as he grabbed her wrist and pulled her off her bed.

    Melody shrank away and squawked “Ed! What?”
    But he smiled again, a worried smile, but still like he was glad to see her. Melody was prepared for her dad, or even for arguing with her mom, but not for this. She was mad at him, but she missed her brothers. So Melody let herself be led.

    When they got to the car, Ms. Krum was standing there with the door open, smiling, looking like she wanted to hug. But Melody gave Ms. Krum her best mean look, so Ms. Krum just firmly took hold of her hand where Edwin was holding the wrist, smiled and said how “good it was to finally meet you.” Nodded, and thanked Edwin when he swung the suitcase into the third row of seats. “Now you just buckle in and we’ll be on our way.”

    Melody was stuck. She was in the back of a blue van that smelled a little bit like “new car.” She remembered how her dad used to joke with her brothers about people who bought that smell in a spray can so they could keep their car smelling new for longer. That seemed like it happened a million years ago to someone else; someone who just happened to share her name, house, garden, and parents. Now she was buckled in to the back seat of a van that a lady named Ms. Krum was driving.

    Ms. Krum was a social worker and it was her job to make sure “that these first visits (so very important) go smoothly.” She had greeted Melody’s mother with a cheerful smile and complemented Melody on her clothes and commented to Ms. ____ about the “hominess” of the apartment all the while gently asking questions about Melody and her life. Ms. Krum was obviously good at her job. If someone made the mistake of talking to her, then she ended up knowing much more than you thought you were going to tell.

    Huddling back into the corner between the van’s window and her seat back, the shoulder strap of her seat belt inching up onto her neck, Melody was determined that she wasn’t going to talk to Ms. Krum.

    Her bro, Edwin was sitting awkwardly beside her. What a gross and disgusting way for them to finally see each other; in the back seat of a car under the watchful ears of Ms. Krum. Melody could see – maybe just feel – how her brother Edwin sat up straight and looked out the front window. She could hear him breathing like he was asleep. Sulking and turned off, like a laptop when you close the lid. Melody wanted to ask him a million questions, but didn’t really want to talk to him either. Edwin was family, the brother who protected her, but not any more. Now she didn’t even know if she could trust him.

    “We’re almost home!” Ms. Krum called in her unnaturally cheerful voice. As though Melody needed to be told where they are! They had turned off the main drag where she would ride her bicycle on the sidewalk on the way up to the school, and turned up the hill, past the supermarket, and left into their development. Melody put her fingers into her ears and burrowed deeper into the corner between her seat and the van’s window.

    The van slowed, paused, and pulled a sharp left. They were in the driveway. And Melody wasn’t going to come out. Ms. Krum pulled one of Melody’s hands away from her ear. “I’m taking your bag to your room. You stay here until you’re ready to come in.” So Melody stayed in the car. Edwin got out. He hadn’t said a word since she shrank away from him when he picked up her suitcase. Through the window of the van Melody saw Ms. Krum carrying her the purple suitcase with her pajamas, clothes for two days and the new diary the girls had pitched in and bought from the dollar store.

    Ms. Krum leaned towards Edwin and touched his arm. Melody imagined she was telling him not to worry. Melody had to spend the weekend in the house.

    Melody did have to spend the weekend in the house. She certainly couldn’t stay much longer in the van. Like it or not eventually she would have to pee.

  4. I love today’s quick write, as it is getting me to think more pointedly about the moments of decision I have my characters making. In a couple places, the story hinges on the characters having made choices no one else would make. I think their choice is believable, but can see how clearly considering and closing off other options is a more convincing way of presenting their choice than if I only think about the choice they made. One of my MCs makes a choice to leave family she is vacationing with to run off with a man in danger. I had gotten past early temptation to justify her choice, so that she would have admitted it was the wrong thing to do. But today’s activity has me taking it further, to realize that considering the way her brother had been brave to travel the world as a journalist and considering her obsession with the way he disappeared the prior year, it would have been a more logical decision for this character to follow the man in danger than to stay put in safety. So thanks for getting me to look at it from a different perspective. http://wp.me/pSq56-RJ