Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Got writer's block? Unfinished masterpieces? These free short story writing help tips will help you finish more quickly and bring your work to the world.”

How do you save hours of false starts and find the key to inspiration? Start applying these free short story writing tips...

The Short Story Starts With Character

An enduring short story will make CHARACTERIZATION the primary emphasis, with the plot developing from the interaction of these deeply etched characters. Apply to your story the notion that our character evokes our life's destiny. Know your characters intimately. What is your character's MOTIVATION? What is their IDENTITY? What are their VALUES? What are their FEARS AND DESIRES? What is their exact appearance? What are their characteristic body postures, their manner of speaking, how do they twitch or sit in a chair? Certain characters can be aspects of your alter ego, expressing your deepest held beliefs about life. Other characters can represent the qualities you most despise. Put yourself, and anyone you've ever met, into your characters. A single character can synthesize a dozen people you've known in your life.

In general, if you want to write convincing stories, you will write about what you know deeply, from your own EXPERIENCE. If you want to write convincingly about what you haven't experienced, you should do intensive research and interviews, and possess a world class imagination. Meditate on this quote from Thomas Wolfe's novel Look Homeward Angel:

"Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?"

Literature is a way of bridging this silent gulf between people, a form of companionship, an expression of what is most essential and meaningful about human life. Express in your stories what you believe human life is all about, your viewpoint on the meaning of existence.

The Elements of Storytelling

Strive for FOCUS in your short story. Every detail you present should reinforce your driving theme. Everything you put in the story should be integral, nothing should be gratuitous. Remember John Steinbeck's advice to "Know your story in 10 words before you tell it in 1000."

A good short story writer will account for the following elements in their story:

1) CHARACTER: Develop your characters, explore their interactions and value conflicts, and their internal life or "interior monologue."

2) CONFLICT: Have a protagonist, the principal character in the story, and an antagonist, the adversary to the protagonist. The writer can also portray an "anti-hero," a character notably lacking in heroic qualities, such as Holden Caulfield in the adolescent classic The Catcher in the Rye. Jack Kerouac's fictionalized portrayal of Beat Generation avatar Neal Cassady as frantic, endearing, but selfish Dean Moriarity in On the Road straddles the line between hero and anti-hero.

3) PLOT: The action of the story, what happens.

4) THEME: The main idea of the story. To understand the difference between plot and theme, consider Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The plot of the story concerns Captain Ahab's search for Moby Dick to gain revenge. The theme of the novel concerns the nature of evil and God, and profound questions of destiny versus free will.

5) SETTING: The place where the action is set.

6) MOOD/ATMOSPHERE: The feeling and emotion that the story evokes.

7) DESCRIPTION: Give concrete details of people and things.

8) SYMBOLISM: The meanings of the events and images in the story. Symbolism means when one thing represents or stands for another thing. Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his long allegorical poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner uses the visible symbol of the albatross to represent the invisible realm of spirit which underlies matter. When the Ancient Mariner shoots the albatross, a harbinger of good luck on his sea voyage, it becomes an omen of ill fortune and a symbol of the Mariner's defiance of the mysterious and unknown realm of spirit. By slaying the albatross, the Mariner enters into discord with nature, which brings disaster to his shipmates and forces him to repent and to reconcile with the divine and the malevolent aspects of the spiritual universe.

9) IMAGERY: The recurring visual aspects of the story, related to symbolism.

10) STANDPOINT: The viewpoint of the narrator, for example the first person voice of the protagonist, or the omniscient voice who knows everything about all the characters in the story. The rise of literary High Modernism in the early 20th century emphasized the importance of the subjective inner monologue (e.g. James Joyce's Ulysses and the works of William Faulkner), often depicted as multilayered montages of narrative perspectives which undercut the notion of the narrator's omniscience. Literary Postmodernism took these trends of narrative ambiguity and perspectivism to new edges of chaos and deconstruction. Again we depart from the scope of this online course. I refer readers interested in the new trajectories of narrative experimentalism (in relation to the online world) and discussion of "isms" to the online work of Mark Amerika at For an intelligent critique of Amerika's work, go to Clicking for Godot: Interactive art struggles to produce masterpieces by Scott Rosenberg at

11) LANGUAGE: The situation the author describes determines he proper type and tone of language to use.

12) DIALOGUE: To write convincing, realistic dialogue, listen closely to what people around you say, and remember the timbre and quality of their voices. Make photocopies of good examples you encounter in your reading, and keep files of them to use as models to follow in your own writing.

Use these elements of storytelling to have a "map" for your story, a general idea of where you want to go, but allow writing to be a process of discovery. The first sentence of the story is crucial, since it hooks the reader, and often sums up the theme of piece. Write and rewrite your story until you are satisfied. Reading your story aloud is a great way to comb out awkward language. Burn this phrase into your brain and act on it: Writers are readers! Remember the advice of Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson: "For a man to write well, there are required three necessities: to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style."

"Got writer's block? Clustering and Mind Mapping are the cure."

CLUSTERING is a "whole brain" method of generating ideas, visually organizing information, and making a plan for the piece of writing. OUTLINE WRITING is a familiar way of organizing your ideas, though clustering has the advantage of utilizing your brain's visual and verbal sides.

To cluster a topic, place the name of that topic in the middle of a piece of paper, and draw a circle around it. Branch off from this original topic circle by drawing connecting lines to any words that freely come to mind regarding the topic, then put a circle around these associated words. Don't worry about organizing these thoughts, just let the associations pour out with the free rhythm of the mind. Then you can look at your clusters and group related concepts together, and re-do the cluster map for more refinement of your concepts, as many times as needed to get clarity. You may add tiny related pictures and colored pens to help you distinguish and organize your bits of information.

The British brainpower expert Tony Buzan developed a system analogous to clustering, called MIND MAPPING. I've used this method of visual thinking for years, to stimulate my imagination on creative projects, focus on goal setting, and even deal with life crises (since a problem always becomes more manageable when it's written down, and even more so when it's visualized).

Poetry Writing Help
Struggling to find the key to inspiration for your poems? These free poetry writing resources will solve the mysteries and awaken your poetic vision.

"The diary of a frustrated poet...doesn't have to be your story. These free poetry writing tips can give you the key to inspiration."

Introduction to Creative Writing
It's true: creative writing is a wonderfully liberating way of expressing your feelings, experiences, and views on the world. Many people wish they could express themselves in writing, but imagine that to write well takes a magical elixir. I'm here to remove this mystique; I'll provide approaches and tools for people who want to get started in writing poetry and short stories, but perhaps don't know where to begin. Admittedly, the following system will be a concise but not comprehensive introduction. To become a successful writer always takes great effort and persistence. I advise all writers to remember the sagacious words of William Faulkner in his 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature speech:
"The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself...alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat." Faulkner insisted that the writer deal only with "the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed: love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."

The successful short story writer and poet, like any creative artist, learns to balance creativity and discipline. The free flow of ideas, images, and insights can exhilarate the writer, but you should balance these sensations with structure and form, if you wish to effectively communicate your vision with others.

How to Generate Writing Ideas
Many inexperienced writers innocently wonder of professional writers, "Where do you get your ideas?" To which the controversial fantasy author Harlan Ellison always replies, with typical sarcasm, "From an idea factory in Schenectady." Ideas come actually from the playful interaction of reality and the imagination. We could not imagine a purple horse unless the color purple, and an animal called the horse, existed already in nature. The activity of the imagination combines these two pre-existing things, and creates the synergy of something new. Learn how to observe the world with real penetration; the person at the bus stop or in the grocery check-out line can provide ample material for stories, if you discover how to really look, question, imagine, and record. Here are some splendidly productive methods for brainstorming ideas for writing:

1) Keep a DREAM LOG, a daily journal of your dreams. Write them down as soon as you wake up, even while you're half awake. Go back to these records when you're more lucid, and you may find that your unconscious has delivered a gold mine of ideas and images that you can utilize in your writing.
2) Keep a JOURNAL and write a little everyday: your daily events and ideas and observations and the people you meet. You will begin to see the world as a writer, through the prism of your observation and imagination. Remember the statement of success coach Anthony Robbins : "If your life if worth living, it is worth recording." Write down anecdotes from your daily life, from the people around you, from the evening news, from everywhere and anywhere, and you will soon have a wealth of raw material that can be expanded into a good short story or poem.
3) The "CUT-UP" technique developed by iconoclastic author William S. Burroughs definitely will generate surprising ideas. Take pages from any randomly selected printed matter -- books, magazines, junk mail, newspapers -- and divide one page horizontally into three strips of text, labeling the columns A, B, C. Divide another page with the same procedure, and do it to as many pages as you wish. Then get a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Transcribe the text from column A of one page, together with column A from another page. Combine these fragmented sentences to form a new, usually very bizarre sentence. You can transcribe these columns in any pattern you wish: ABCD, BADC, etc. The results may seem meaningless at first, but look deeper and you may trigger a flow of astonishing ideas and imagery to use in your writing. Here's an example of what can emerge (from The Third Mind by Burroughs and Bryon Gysin): "Interesting Mayan numerals repetitions associations rains start to realize green space travel Muslim trees in unexploded star." Use this sentence as a launching pad to generate further ideas. What associations do the Mayan numerals trigger in your brain? Or green space travel? What do Muslim trees have to do with unexploded stars? Use your imagination to draw your own exciting conclusions, then write them down.

Introduction to Poetry
Writer Jon Stallworthy gave an outstanding definition of what makes a poem in his essay on "Versification" in The Norton Anthology of Poetry: "A poem is a composition written for performance by the human voice." Nineteenth century English Romantic poet William Wordsworth described poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion reflected in tranquility." Rhythm, meter, and rhyme are important elements the poet utilizes in composing a poem. These elements interrelate to form a unified whole, based on the poem's central image. Imagery, simile, and metaphor are also important devices the poet uses to convey his or her message. To master poetry requires as much skill and disciplined practice as to master music, so naturally in this short guide we only can expose you to basic principles.

Structural Elements of Poetry
Let's briefly introduce you to the basic structural elements that combine to form a poem: rhythm, meter, rhyme, imagery, simile, and metaphor.

1) RHYTHM is a pattern of repeated sound, marked by the duration and quality of the repetition. The accent of a rhythm refers to the stress placed upon a specific word. Notice the rhythm and accents in this selection from Edgar Allan Poe's "Anabel Lee": "For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams/ Of the beautiful Anabel Lee/ And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes/ Of the beautiful Anabel Lee."
2) METER is a rhythm repeating a single basic pattern. A specific kind of meter is iambic pentameter, used by William Shakespeare in his sonnets: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? /Thou art more lovely and more temperate."
3) RHYME is of course the correspondence of word sounds. Study this selection from Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness/ Thou foster child of silence and slow time/ Sylvan historian who canst thus express/ A flowery tale more sweet than our rhyme." Keats uses two kinds of rhyme: perfect rhyme ("time" and "rhyme"), and imperfect rhyme ("quietness" and "express").
4) IMAGERY refers to language evoking visual images. Visualize the stunning imagery evoked by this passage from Hart Crane's "Voyages II": "O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,/ Bequeath us to no earthly shore until/ Is answered in the vortex of our grave/ The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise."
5) SIMILE is a figure of speech that creates a similarity, through the comparison of two things using the words "like" or "as" or "than," as in the phrase "our graves...are drawn like curtains."
6) METAPHOR is a figure of speech in which one thing stands for another, as in this passage from William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence": "To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour."
Methods for Writing Poems
In a poem you will communicate your deepest feelings and express your Big Ideas on the universe and life, but please do not be seduced by the sophomoric notion that art should consist of the unfettered expression of emotion. Never lose sight of Wordsworth's distinction that poetry originates from "emotion reflected in tranquility." You must set aside time for writing and stick to it, and eliminate all distractions. Listen to and record your inner voice, with all its concerns and preoccupations, even its tumult.

In this act of outpouring, however, your emotional honesty must not override your artistic control, if you aspire more to artistry than to mere confession or to the transcription of the utterances of the unconscious. Here we discuss the creation of literature, not the inner shadows of depth psychology and automatic writing or the supernatural vagaries of channeling. Nor does the scope of this online course encompass an advanced discussion of aesthetics or the philosophy of art; suffice to say that we can define art on both the functional and qualitative levels.
We can define art functionally (i.e. what does art do?) as the transmission of a vision of the world through a chosen artform, in this case poetry. The person beholding the message conveyed in the respective artform responds to the reality contained therein. Within this loose definition, the most haphazard and unedited artistic expressions have a place. After all, a vision has been communicated, right? Of course, this functional definition omits crucial questions of the value and quality of the transmitted message, of proper and improper art (see Joseph Campbell's Reflections on the Art of Living for definitions of these terms), of artistic ethics, and of the debasement or uplifting of the human spirit -- for surely there is a world of difference between, say, the Shakespearean sonnets and MTV's Jackass. If these multiple differences mean nothing to you, you should really ask yourself if you're in the right profession.

The qualitative definition of art (i.e. what is art's value?) seeks a transmission in which the human spirit has been enriched; the artist illuminates a new angle on the perennial predicaments of the human condition. This higher sphere of art and poetry consists of the refinement of the emotions of life into a plastic form (an "artifical universe" of creation, in whatever medium), a nuanced layering of meaning, an exquisite balance of the unconscious ground of creativity with the craft of conscious intent.

With due respect to those masters of excess, the vivid automatic writings of Andre Breton and his Surrealist cohorts, "the spontaneous bop prosody" of Jack Kerouac ("first thought, best thought") and the Beat Generation, and the finer fantasy moments of two-fingered typist and conscientious objector to re-writing Harlan Ellison, I encourage fledgling poets (and fiction writers) to err on the side of refinement not of unbridled expression.
Take Beat figure Neal Cassady, who despite his enormous influence as the prototype for Kerouac's fast-moving, fast-talking characters Dean Moriarity in On The Road and Cody Pomeroy in Visions of Cody, the profound impact of his "Joan Anderson Letter" (see The First Third & Other Writings) in forming Kerouac's "mad, confessional" onrushing style of "spontaneous prose" (also called "spontaneous bop prosody"), and his role as the spiritual mentor to author Ken Kesey's hippie multi-media pioneers The Merry Pranksters and to the intrepid traveling of The Grateful Dead 1 can be seen as squandering his literary and creative gifts on the altar of a reckless, Dionysian life of spontaneity and sensation. His wife Carolyn Cassady asks, "what talent, what originality does debasement and destruction require? As Henry Miller once told me - 'spontaneity' only has value when the underlying mind has something to offer." ("Off the Record & On the Road", interview in Organica magazine, autumn 1992) Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in his epochal classic "Howl" (1956) wrote of his feverish cohorts and himself as young writers "who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish." What poet has not experienced this disillusioned self-assessment of his or her "inspired" work, in the glare of the hard-boiled light of day? Writing is work, so start toiling in the vinyards. Let the wine pore forth from your very soul.

One way to begin your poem is to consider an experience you have had, a situation or predicament or realization in the midst of life. Make this experience the heart of the composition, the stimulus for your act of writing. Take this central perception and view it from many angles, brainstorm the images, words, and descriptive details that this experience summons up. Use the technique of CLUSTERING or MIND MAPPING to brainstorm efficiently. Write the word for your experience in the center of the page, and draw a circle around it. Then draw connecting balloons containing all the words you associate with this experience, letting your mind roam freely. Engage all your senses when developing imagery: sight, sound, taste, touch, and feel. Then choose an appropriate format to organize your poem: epic, dramatic, or lyric form, narrative poem, haiku and other forms (try villanelles, sestinas, sonnets, elegies, pastorals, ballads, pantoums, odes, blank verse, the stanza).
Ask your local librarian to help you find out more about the poetic formats and approaches that are best for you, or do independent online research (try the massive free resources at Columbia University's I recommend the book The Norton Anthology of Poetry (see below) and The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach , edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. Distinguished poet and your author's former Boston University professor Stuart Dischell recommends starting a poem by developing a strong first line, then letting that line suggest a direction for the rest of the poem. Let your writing juices flow, make writing into an act of self-discovery. Use the power of description to fire up your writing. Play with language, delight in its surprises, and become interested in words for their own sake, like e.e. e.e. cummings or Gwendolyn Brooks in the following poem:
"The Pool Players, Seven at the Golden Shovel"

We real cool.
We Left school.
We Lurk late.
We Strike straight.
We Sing sin.
We Thin gin.
We Jazz June.
We Die soon.

Always read your poem aloud to comb out awkward syntax, phrases, metaphors, or rhythms. Do not forget that poetry has always been an oral tradition. Share your work with friends and with other aspiring poets. Be responsive to their constructive criticism, but let no one quell your inner voice. I urge you to take further action: enroll in a workshop in poetry writing, ask your local librarian about contacting local and national poets, and read books on writing poetry such as those recommended on this page.