Human interaction is a main source of plot in writing. All conversations between two or more characters, an argument, a lie, a murder, a love affair, a boxing match or baseball game; these are all things that move the plot forward and they all require more than one character. Our interactions with people define us. Your character’s friends, family, coworkers, significant other and even strangers they meet on the street; these are all relationships that help define who the character is.
The challenge of this writing prompt is to figure out who your character is without human interaction. They could have chosen the solitary (a solo camping trip in the woods) or they could have had it forced upon them (solitary confinement or a deserted island). You can create a new character or use this to learn something about a character from another piece you’re working on. The piece could span many years or a rare hour your character finds alone.
The only rule is there should be NO human interaction. No flashbacks with interaction, no talking to ghosts or imaginary friends, no phone calls, texts or letter writing. Simply your character, alone. They can be having an amazing adventure or just trying to fall asleep at night. Use your imagination!
Please share if you complete the prompt!
Book Review: Mary Francois Rockcastle’s Rainy Lake. Published by Graywolf Press.
Rainy Lake is more than a coming-of-age story of a young girl. There are all the traditional aspects of such a story including friendship, family issues, young love and experiencing new things, but that is not the depth of the story. Set in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Rainy Lake is flooded with issues of the Vietnam War and racism. Growing up in a family that encourages liberal ideas such as equality, anti-war and education for women, the pressure of mass thought throughout their community challenges the family on their beliefs.
Danny (Danielle) Fillian guides the reader through this first person narrative as an older woman looking back on her family’s summers at their lake cabin. The story begins with the family purchasing the lake cabin and progresses through an array of family, community and social political issues. The novel is rich of details that linger on your mind like the smell of lake water lingers on Danny’s first love, a black boy named Billy.
Rainy Lake is a story of opposing forces that bring light on the complications of life. The characters show us that taking actions to back up our beliefs will always meet resistance. The following are the forces I picked out throughout the book that work against each other to twist this young girl’s life into a story worth reading.
White vs. Black.
War vs. Anti-war
Belonging to a community vs. Holding true to individual beliefs
Financial security vs. Happiness/Freedom
Risk vs. the Comfort of Safety
Life vs. Death
Love vs. Lust
The present vs. The future
All of these forces are constantly working against each other. Many events occur that cause the family to put their beliefs into action but they often fall short, giving in to the peer pressure of their community. The only character who truly takes action in align with their beliefs is Danny’s brother, Brain. His actions always align with his beliefs in equality but eventually all of the opposing forces become too strong.
Walls crumble at the end of the novel. More issues arise within the family that builds tension and forces secrets. The relationship between Danny and Billy, the black neighborhood boy, becomes more complicated as he volunteers to go to war. A dramatic event at the end of the novel causes the family to reconsider everything they hold dear in their lives, including each other.
The structure of Rainy Lake smoothly narrates the reader through a seven year time span while skiping large sections of time. Each chapter (some more than 30 pages) covers the span of an entire summer and centers around a single event. (Example: The first chapter covers the summer of 1963 when the family finds and decides to buy the run-down house on Rainy Lake.) Covering 1963 to 1970, Mary Rockcastle exemplifies beautiful transitions in this novel where every chapter break skips seven to eight months. The centering of each chapter around a single event helps ground the reader in the present. It avoids overwhelming feelings from the long timeline or feelings of missing information from the winter months that Rockcastle skips. The fact that the summer cabin is a reasonable distance away from the family’s hometown also helps the flow of the story because we are aware that the summer months are the only time all the characters are all together in this setting. Rockcastle mentions Danny’s “school friends” just enough to let us know that they are not the same as her “Rainy friends.”
Point of View
Like any first person narrative, one must always consider the reliability of the narrator. Danny is a teenage girl, still being highly influenced by her peers and family. She sees the world through a veil, one that simplifies the world. More than once, Danny’s older brother vocalizes her ignorance. This is Rockcastle’s way of telling the reader there are problems that Danny is ignorant off and therefore, so is the reader.
Rockcastle also slips in brief snippets letting the reader know that Danny is narrating this novel many years after the events, as an adult. This could also cause a veil of time to distort the true events as the occurred. Even though I believe every first person narrative
should be taken into consideration, I frown upon spending too much time discussing the reliability. Reliable or not, we can only interpret and enjoy the story in the voice it was written and spending too much time on that takes away from the true essence of the story and the writing.
Because we see the story through Danny’s eyes, we don’t always notice how strange the young girl is. The details Rockcastle shares are well chosen and unique. Danny tends to categorize people by their smells, often mentioning how she smells lake water on the Billy’s skin. Danny also keeps a box of memories. One detail I think I’ll never forget is Danny keeping the condom from her first sexual experience, saying she is going to “press it first, like a corsage.” When Billy mentions how strange it is, she shrugs it off saying “I save all my important things. I have a box full of stuff: ticket stubs, invitations, dried flowers…Now I have this, too.”
“I think you’re a little cracked, Danny,” Billy said.
Any detail that sticks in a reader’s mind as this one has stuck in mine is a true writing success, no matter how far out of the box (no pun intended) one must go to get it.
The most impactful moment of the book comes near the end, in a meaningful exchange between Danny and her brother, Brian. The dialogue feels very real with sincere concern and quick bickering remarks like all siblings display. It is balanced with hopes for a bright future and secrets that could hold them back. When I finished the book, I immediately went back and reread this conversation between Danny and Brian. On the first read, it was powerful and demanded the readers’ attention. On the second, it slowed down the entire novel. It discusses the past, the present and the future. When reading it for the second time, I got the feeling that Danny’s brother knew something was going to happen and before it did, he wanted to tell his sister that she can be and do anything she wants in this life as long as she doesn’t let herself get in her way. This passage alone would make the entire book worth reading; it is that powerful.
Although I would not call Rainy Lake a “page-turner,” it is indeed a compelling story. The depth and width of topics covered is empowering and the feeling of the Vietnam War era is captured well, hovering over Danny as she grows into a woman. I recommend this book to all who love a complex tale of family and young love as well as those who love a book full of rich detail. As one of the cover quotes states, this novel will leave you with “the lingering smell of lake water.”
How I found this book: I was honored to have Mary Rockcastle, Director of the Hamline University Creative Writing Program, teach my Senior Seminar at Hamline. After gaining respect for her as a teacher and brilliant mind on the craft of writing, I couldn’t stop myself from picking up her book. Now, I have gained respect for her as a writer as well as a person. Thank you for sharing your knowledge—and your novel—with us, Mary.
Mimicking writers we admire is often a starting point for young writers but it should never stop there. Developing our style and improving our craft never ends and neither should the practices we use to develop them.
I wrote this poem mimicking Walt Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. An excellent poem by an excellent poet. Everyone should have a little Whitman in their life.
Crossing the Beach
I rip the coverings from my skin and the fresh cool breeze makes my hairs stand salute,
Smoke encircles me but dares not enter my lungs
For my body is pure, my body is real, my body is alive and the smoke is just a mist,
A mist that vanishes as soon as you begin to believe it is real,
But its presence still surrounds you as it surrounds me without touching our pale flesh
That glows in the reflection of the fire
As the fire consumes me the way the smoke cannot dream.
I strike a hand through the dense air and push myself through and through,
Toes digging and slipping with the shredded earth beneath them as if this was a tango,
And there is nothing but this moment with the earth beneath my feet and the smoke daring to come near
And the waters just steps away and I move forward on, nothing to stop me.
Ah! Icy waters! Do I feel as warm to you as you feel cold to me?
Not sure where the water begins and my body ends,
This vast liquid is the smoke of my body’s fire.
This moment is nothing but the moment and needs to be nothing more.
When I was making the decision to major in Creative Writing in college, one of my biggest fears was that studying the subject would take the joy out of reading. Thankfully, the exact opposite happened. I’m a very slow reader because as I read, I am constantly thinking about writing. I pay attention to sentence structure, word choice, dialogue tricks, pacing, characterization and a thousand other aspects. I want nothing more than to soak in every detail of the story as well as the writing and if I zipped through a hundred pages an hour, that wouldn’t happen.
When I write, I don’t necessarily think about what I’ve learned from my reading but subconsciously it plays its part. Last summer when I got on a Don DeLillo kick, I caught myself imitating his writing style. I didn’t notice it until revision but that alone is proof that what we read affects ours writing.
If I choose to drop writing forever would reading lose its meaning? I could still enjoy the stories but I would no longer need that notebook at my side scribbling down page numbers and notes. Reading would become one-dimensional entertainment; something to be tossed aside once the last page was flipped.
Probably the most common advice for aspiring writers is simply this: read and read a lot. We learn to write by reading. So if I was to give up reading in order to keep writing, how would I improve? Would my learning be limited to dry textbooks? How would I know the trends of the market? How would I know where to send my stuff for publication if I am unable to read what they have published previously? Without reading, writing would become incredibly hard.
How am I to pick one when neither is same without the other?
Twist my arm today I would choose reading. Twist my arm tomorrow and I could very likely choose writing.
Book Review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Published by Vintage.
If you have ever stolen someone’s journal, you know it’s really not that exciting of a read. Rambling complaints are not fun. But in this journal-like novel, Didion’s writing kept my eyes glued to the page until it was over. In her essay, Why I Write, Didion explains that she writes to find out what she is thinking, to find out what is going to happen to her (in nonfiction) or her characters (fiction). (See my recent post, Writing as Discovery, for more about this.) Written during the year after her husband’s death, this book is exactly that. As the internal dialogue goes on, the reader can clearly see Didion trying to deal with her grief. At times she recognizes it but still cannot control it. Our desire to continue reading is driven by the same thing that drove her to write this book; to discover how she learns to live with her grief.
This piece of nonfiction is a first person narrative that exposes the extreme grief of the author, Joan Didion, after the death of her husband. The novel begins with the scene of his death, witnessed firsthand by Didion. The novel flows through the next year, peeling away the layers of grief and heartache that Didion experiences. Flashbacks paint a full picture of the couple’s life together while present problems keep the plot moving forward. This novel is a perfect example of how writing in specifics can create a truly universal picture. As it says in the description, this novel “will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.”
This novel begins with the climax. The husband’s death is quick and, frankly, not very dramatic. A separate but related plot line takes over the forward momentum of the story while many flashbacks create a full picture of Didion’s marriage. The structure of the story is not solid. It is not exciting or suspenseful. But it is a page turner. Didion’s writing flows so effortlessly and she explains things with such clarity and beauty that it made me want to read on.
Didion uses repetition of certain words and phrases throughout the book to keep the reader grounded. Because the words/phrases are unique, it brings the reader back to the specific memory in which she introduced it. The many flashbacks create a jumpy timeline. These trigger words—as I will call them—help remind the reader of where they have been and help tie the entire story together in a loosely plotted book.
In the novel, Didion admits that she believes “information is control.” Therefore, we see her incorporate a lot of research into this book. She shares research about the science of health issue that arises. She quotes reactions others have had to the sudden death of a loved one. She brings sections of her and her husband’s previously published work into this novel. She quotes poems that are stuck in her head. She takes excerpts from books including The Hour of Our Death by Philipe Ariés and an article about cardiac arrest from the Massachusetts Medical Society. The research is diverse but always directly relates.
In a fictional novel, this research could be woven into the book seamlessly, passed off as the character’s or narrator’s own knowledge. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion creates the impression that the reader is learning and growing side-by-side with her. She presents the research as she discovers it to enhance this perception—and it works very well!
In its own way, this book is a rapid page-turner but I would not recommend it to action-seekers and plot-twist enthusiasts. Although the internal, emotional dialogue does not appeal to everyone, the book did become a National Bestseller and won the National Book Award. Personally, the day I picked it up, I only put it down for lunch, dinner and to great my boyfriend home from work. I finished it the next day. Without a doubt, I will read this book again someday.
How I found this book: Honestly, the title caught my eye in a book store and Joan Didion’s name alone is legendary. I put it on my Christmas list and was grateful enough to receive it from my boyfriend’s parents. Thank you!
I have read a lot lately about writing as discovery. Jane Kenyon put it this way: “There’s the need to make sense of life behind the impulse to write.”
When I started writing in a creative way, this is consciously what inspired me. I was a middle school girl going through a lot of changes and life was sooo dramatic. I perceived a lot more issues than were present but if you had told me that at the time I would have locked myself in my room for the rest of the day and scribble poems in my notebook.
These poems were always one page long, the title always came from a direct word or phrase in the poem itself and they were always nonfictional. I wrote to try to find out why my best friend had ditched me, why my parents were fighting, why my sister had made me change clothes before we went to the high school baseball game. I wrote these poems—and reread them—trying to figure out what was going on in my head and in my heart and why those feelings never seemed to match up.
Joan Didion ends her essay “Why I Write” saying “…had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”
Not knowing what is coming next in my own novel is what keeps me going and what makes me afraid to go forward. I don’t have a plan. I don’t know my character’s deepest ambitions. I have no idea what is going to happen in the next chapter, let alone the ending. I’m not even sure what genre it is. But I force myself to sit down and write because I want to know what is going to happen. I want my character to reveal his deepest fears when the time is right and if I don’t push the story forward, he will never get the chance.
When I was a short-fused, teenage girl who died her hair purple on a whim, I wrote because I needed some sense of control. I needed to know what I was trying to say when I was tongue tied. I needed to know where my heart was leading me when I saw nothing but darkness in every direction. Back then it was nonfictional poems, today its fictional short stories and novels, but I write for the same reasons.
See, I have this inkling,
that as my novel goes on
and my character reveals himself,
he’s turning out to be more and more like me.
Light brings clarity. Lack of light brings fear.
Sun. Lamp. Firefly. Chandelier. Lightning. Technology.
What produces more light; nature or man? If a man creates a fire in the woods, is that nature’s or man’s?
There was once a time when men huddled around fire with their jaws dropped. The heat that emanated, the light, it was magic to them. Fire cooked their food and warmed their homes. Fire was life.
The torch held by the Statue of Liberty. The flickering of a single firefly. The constellations of a city’s skyline.The reflection of sunlight off ice.
Do we control light? The flick of a switch. The strike of a match. A curtain pulled aside. Light is allowed and denied but shadows always exist. Darkness conceals corners and hides mountains. A photographer’s contrast. A shadow slithers behind us on the street when the sun is low. Run and run and run but only nature’s timetable will free you.
Check out the writing prompt that inspired this!
In the nonfiction book I’m currently reading, the author jumps from subject to subject but always finds a way back to the main theme of the book, grief. In my own experiences, no matter what we begin writing about our subconscious always finds it’s way to the surface. That is the exact reason I turn to writing when I am upset; it brings our concerns to the surface and forces us to deal with them (either directly or indirectly).
Whether something is troubling you or not, I’d like you to take the time to simple free write (writing not connected to any specific piece) and see where it takes you.
Choose a vague topic and free write for at least 10 minutes. Possible topics: freedom, light, space, meaninglessness, emotion, family, faith, failure, success, the future, war, ect.
Comment with other topic suggestions that work for you! Have fun!
Book Review on Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick. Published by Roc, a division of Penguin.
It’s with great hesitancy that I quit reading a book before I finish it but Among Thieves simply failed to hook me. I read nearly 200 pages of the 414 page book. Every time I sat down to read, I found myself skimming huge passages just to try to get it over with. Finally I convinced myself to return the book to the library and start something new.
Among Thieves follows around the main character, Drothe, in a dangerous city called Ildrecca. Drothe works for a crime lord as a type of spy that lets his boss know the events and rumors that are happening around the city. When war threatens Drothe’s boss and his power, he is sent to uncover who is behind the whispered threats. Along the way, Drothe luckily survives a murder attempt that used illegal magic. Now Drothe tries to uncover who wants him dead, who is threatening his boss and trying to uncover mysterious markings that he took from a man he tortured in the opening scene of the book.
While all of the above story lines were interesting, I felt that they were not coming together fast enough. Halfway through the book, there were at least four separate plot lines and no hint of them coming together. I also had problems with the pace of the novel. Something was always happening, yes, but it was happening too slow. The book was overflowing with details, many of which I found to be unnecessary. After a while, I found myself skipping all the dialogue tags and details during a conversations. Even when I skipped all those words, I still understood what was happening. That kind of unnecessary description was a huge turn off.
Even with description riddling every page, I still didn’t get a good sense of the characters. The main character, Drothe, is the only one I would consider truly round and most of that comes from his background and not his present actions. Though I would consider him brave, harsh and curious in a need-to-know sort of way, I don’t know how else to describe him. One of my biggest issues with Drothe’s character was I didn’t know who he was loyal to. He was working for his boss but there was some serious tension there. On the side, he was working with several other people including his sister who married her way into royalty. There is also his best friend who takes a binding oath to protect and help him in the dangerous looming times. I want to say he is loyal to himself and only himself but I can’t even be sure of that. I never knew what to expect of him. It is good to keep a little mystery, but I prefer to have a strong hold on the characters and let the plot keep me guessing.
Element of Magic
I knew going into the book that it was a SciFi Fantasy novel but the elements of magic that were introduced throughout the story came about too slow. The only fantasy thing that is clear right away is Drothe’s “night vision.” His eyes automatically adjust to the dark, allowing him to see more clearly. It was hinted at that Drothe took this ability from someone but it was never explained how.
About a third of the way through the book, we are introduced to more magic that the world holds. When a hired man attempts to kill Drothe with illegal magic, we get our first introduction into the part that magic plays in this world. Because that information came so late, I kept wondering if there were more aspects of the world that would be revealed with time. When a story is set in a world so different from our own, the basic rules of that world need to be established early on in the story. Halfway through Among Thieves, I still did not have a good grasp on the world and what type of magical elements were possible. In this aspect, I believe Hulick failed.
Overall, the plot moved too slow, had too much detail and did not provide the reader with a solid grounding. I would not recommend this book to anyone. I’m hesitant to even award this book one star.
How I found this book: I recently joined a book club of all writers and this was the first novel chosen. I am looking forward to next month’s book (East of Eden by John Steinbeck) much more.
The interesting thing about our favorite books and stories is that the more we read, one of two things happens; our favorites either become more firmly locked into place or they get pushed down and down the list until their titles no longer appear. I was surprised by a few of the titles that ended up on my list, which was compiled after a fellow writing friend (check out Julija’s blog sojustmethen.wordpress.com) encouraged me to do so after she shared her own. Along with the surprises, there are a few that have become as sure as cement. Some have been on the list for many years and others only a few months.
I encourage all avid readers to write down your top 10 favorites. Like me, you may be surprised at what makes the list.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald –I’ve always loved reading, but The Great Gatsby made me fall in love with literature! Although it’s no longer my favorite novel, I will forever be in debt to Mr. Fitzgerald (and my high school English teacher, Mr. Smith, who assigned the reading) for introducing me to another world.
- The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – J.K. Rowling has given the entire world a gift. She created such an imaginative yet believable world it’s no wonder millions of kids have wrote to her asking for their Hogwarts letters. Harry Potter holds such a high spot on my list not only because I fell in love with the characters, the world and the epic story, but because that story was shared with so many. The community of people around the world that Harry Potter has brought together is in itself magical. Growing up with Harry and his friends through the series was a remarkable journey and one that I, and so many others, will always hold near and dear. The number of young readers who may never have enjoyed reading if it wasn’t for the Harry Potter series is unmatched and will be for a long time.
- The Story of Forgetting by Stefen Merrill Block – Not knowing any idea what I was getting into, I randomly chose The Story of Forgetting audio book off my local library shelf. The novel follows two contrasting storylines, one of a young boy with limitless potential and the other of an old man waiting for the past to find him. A wonderful story but the writing is what hooked me. Block blends worlds; of youth and old age, of imagination and harsh realities, of the past and the future. Block’s novel encompasses so much of what I am aim to achieve with my own written work.
- Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser – An absolutely wonderful book of poetry that touched my soul in a way nothing else ever has. Images from Kooser’s poetry jump into my consciousness on a regular basis. He sees and describes everyday sights and experiences in such a way that I immediately connect with the writing. Although I understand it’s not my strong suit, I love writing poetry because it makes the mind think in different ways. When I attempt to twist my words into a poetic line or two, Kooser’s ability to turn the simplicities of life into unforgettable moments of beauty is exactly what I strive for.
- Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson – My Hamline writing friends know this one well! Assigned reading in my Senior Seminar for Creative Writing, this is simply a beautiful tale of a man and his memories.
- Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz – My favorite fictional character of all time, Odd Thomas is fun, unpredictable and humble. He accepts his bizarre, chaotic life in order to help others even when it tears his own world apart. The way Koontz presents and stays true to Odd’s character throughout the series earns it a top spot. Though, the entire series (currently six books) is worth reading, the first one is by far my favorite.
- Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff – My favorite short story author! His stories are definitely worth the read. His memoir is patiently waiting to be read on my shelf as well.
- The Shining by Stephen King – Similar to The Story of Forgetting, we are graced with characters both young and old and see the story through varying POVs. We take a nerve-quaking journey with an extraordinary young boy just learning to understand and control his abilities. That small twist of science fiction in an otherwise ordinary world is something I can’t resist! With the amount of fiction King produces, it’s safe to say he will always be on my reading list. The Stand, a King classic and regarded by many as his best novel to date, is the next King title on my list.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games series doesn’t even come close to Harry Potter, but such a unique story, written in great prose, is hard not to love. The novel is paced beautifully and Katniss is a beautifully rounded character. She always stays true to herself even when she’s not sure who that is.
- I’m going to end my top 10 with all the childhood favorites that got me reading in the first place: Goosebumps, the “Witches Don’t Do Backflips” books, Matt Christopher, Clifford the Big Red Dog, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so many more! I’m not sure who I would be today if these children’s and young adult authors had not found a way into my heart.