Write With Me Wednesdays: Create Your Writing Territories


(Click Here If You Prefer the Podcast)

Writing lesson teaching ideas research

Directions:  Respond to the following prompts to create your writing territories.  Perhaps you want to copy and paste these prompts into your blog and post your responses.  If you use this activity for your writing, I invite you to leave your blog address via a comment to this post.

  1. Make a list of topics you know a lot about, or if that puts too much pressure on you, make a list of things you know something about.
  2. List the main parts and/or roles in your life.  For example, I’m a professor, a novelist, a husband, a father, a runner, and much more.
  3. Make a list of places you know well.
  4. What are you working on right now?  What projects/work do you have going that might make for good writing topics?
  5. Make a list of topics that you wish you knew more about, or list some things you’d like to be trained in.  You could go out and learn (maybe interview others) and bring the news of your learning back to your audience.
  6. Do a sample schedule of your life.  Try out a weekday, a weekend, summertime, or a holiday.  At 8:00 a.m. you….  And then you…  The idea is that there are topics buried everywhere in each minute of your life.  You just need to be on the lookout for them.
  7. List some political/social issues relevant to your life.

So You Created the Territories, Now What?

  1. Look over the words and phrases you’ve listed and use them to come up with projects for writing.  You might see something that reminds you of a story or you might find a word or phrase that triggers an idea for what you can tell your readers about.  If it’s something you want to know (Why do I keep ending up in these relationships or how do I enter a film in a festival?) then you can take your readers on a journey with you.
  2. Do you want to post your writing territories?  You could explain that you are going to write along with us and that you are posting your writing territories as a blog post.  You could also probably post them as a comment to this post.
  3. After completing the territories, I’d love it if you would post a reflection as comment here about how the activity went for you.
  4. You might want to just jump right to the writing. I suggest that you tell us a story or tell us about one of the words or phrases that you have listed while responding to the prompts.
  5. If you’ve already got a project underway, (as I do) then post an excerpt from that work on your blog and show how it comes out of your territories.  I plan to post something that comes from my writing territories next Monday, November 21, 2011.
Access the handout here.

One Way (of the many) To Try and Write a Draft of a Short Story

I’m doing a workshop soon that has as its goal that we all finish a draft of a short story in three hours.  Here’s my handout so far.  Thought it might interest some of you:

You Can Finally Do It:  Write the Story You’ve Been Meaning to Write

A. Can the idea come from your writing territories?

  1. Make a list of places you know well.  Perhaps one of these spots would make an ideal setting for a story.
  2. Make a list of topics you know a lot about.  These might represent areas of knowledge where you’d be able to lay down the needed details to make the fiction true.
  3. List the main parts and/or roles in your life.  For example, I’m a teacher, a husband, a father, a runner, and much more.   Can I tell a teaching or husband story?
  4. Do a sample schedule of your life.  Try out a school day, weekend, summer, and a holiday?  What possible stories are there in all that?
  5. List some political/social issues relevant to your life.  Rather than telling kids to not use the word “fag” at school, I wrote a short story of the same name.  I wrote a golf course story that captured cultural tensions I experienced while working in Queens in a pro shop.

B. Can you look back into your writing territories above and brainstorm some story ideas?  Here’s a few stories of mine, published and unpublished, that will give you an idea of what I mean.

  • “Every Word I Said.”  A man runs into an old high school classmate and remembers something ugly he did to her. This triggers an apology.
  • “Ye Olde Trading Post.”A grocery store love triangle leads to some Biblically serious egging.
  • “Fag.”  Two “fag” incidents at school told through four perspectives.
  • “Friends at the Table.”  To tell or not to tell?  Adultery among Friends.
  • “Bloody Bucket.”  How can a woman murder her husband and name her new bar after the act?
  • “Sanctuary.”  A man whose daughter has cancer sets up the church for a healing service.

C. Use published stories (fiction and non) as voices which help you think of your own stories.  I don’t mean you read Upike and you copy him.  His “A & P” is a work story and I wonder what a work story of yours might be?  for ideas of your own.  Can you tell a…

  • work story?  John Updike’s “A & P.” In walks these three girls…
  • relationship story?  Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter.”  The notice informed us…
  • story that fills in the blank?  “A ______’s Story.”  Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story.”  My name is Luke Ripley and here is… (this is also a test of conscience story)  The narrator is faced with a difficult moral decision.
  • a story of faith?  Langston Hughes’s “Salvation.”  I was saved from sin going on thirteen.  But not really saved.
  • story that goes slow and describes an action you know well?  Richard Selzer’s “The Knife.”  One holds the knife as one holds the bow of a cello or a tulip—by the stem.
  • a time you learned something?  A family (mother/daughter) story?  From Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. I was six when my mother taught me…
  • a story of place?  a moving story?  a road trip story? (examples not included)

D. You could pause here to look up and refine your idea/s.  How can some of these stories come together and enhance ONE idea for a story?

E.  Some questions to consider when building a story:  Not THE way, but material for possible use. (I’m thinking/hoping you are starting to get an idea for a story you might want to write)

1.       Who will the characters be?  (make a list of some of the most interesting people you know or can imagine)

2.       Who is in the story?  Do I want some people I know to help me?  What about my grandmother at 17 going out on a date with that kid in my first class who drives me crazy?  In other words, some truth and fiction in the character.

3.       Is there a surprising or startling event out there that would fit into this?

4.       What dilemma might a character face?  Should he/she _______ or ________?

5.       Where will the story be set so that I can make it interesting for the reader?  What images (sight, smell, touch, hear, taste) might evoke the place my story is set?

6.       What’s the point of view?  An outsider?  First person?  If it’s third person, does the teller of the story know anyone’s thoughts?

7.       What valuable part of myself as a human being or what insight into living will I be able to bring to the story?  I am a teacher…I’ve been divorced…I have kids…I’m angry when…

8.       Are there social problems that this story deals with that I could highlight/bring to the surface?

9.       What forces might oppose each other in this?  Boss, administration, weather, competing loves, desire for the other to…

10.   What stress is wearing or has worn on the characters up to this point?

11.   Where will the language come from?  New England, school, ocean, farm, cold weather, church

12.   Will anyone move from one emotional and geographical place to another?

Before we write:

A few craft-related ideas to think about:

1.       Write a lot of active subjects with dialogue and resist explaining:  Bill swept the pile of papers off his desk.  “I’m tired of it,” he hollered.   Write your own active sentence here that might go into the story somewhere.

2.       Multiple subjects or verbs to mix up structure.  Bill swept the papers off his desk and turned to the class.  Write your own sentence with two subjects or two verbs.

3.       Load slots.  I mean if you think of a S-V-D.O. sentence, between each part of the sentence there is a slot you could load with more words.   My attempt:  Hands trembling, Bill, who had spittle on his chin, swept the papers off his desk as if he would wreck the whole classroom.

Note: you probably wouldn’t load all the slots, and my example is not so hot, but I used to like to load slots as a warm up and a way to get to know my story.

4.       If I feel lost, I try to write active sentences with action verbs and I try to go back to writing in structural units:  description, dialogue, action.

For  example:  (active sentence with some description) Hoop and Laura walked in the rain along the edge of the cemetery.  (dialogue) “I just don’t think you should put yourself in that sort of situation.”  (some action)  Linda stopped walking, and Hoop raised his hands in exasperation.

At the risk of ruining what we’ve accomplished so far, I’m going to lay out a pretty conventional structure with hopes we can finish a draft.  My opinion is that there is an infinite number of ways a story can be put together and succeed, but if you don’t know how to start, you can start with this:

F.  Write the beginning of the story.  What do beginnings do? Introduce characters, setting, and situation.  Intro the conflict.  Jump into the action.  Anyone bring or know of a story that starts in a particular way that you can share?  What are the different ways that writers begin?  What choices do you have as a writer starting a story?

G.  Write the middle.  Jump ahead if you have to and write the crucial moment where something BIG happens in the thoughts and/or the action.  It might be that all you have to do is keep going with your start.

H.  Write the end.  Try and arrive at your emotional and/or physical destination.  End with key images?  End with a line of dialogue from a character?  How do the stories that you admire end?

Of course stories are written in all sorts of ways.  This handout is my attempt to write a draft of a story in the company of others.  If you try any of this out or have suggestions for improvement, I’d love to hear from you.

How Do I Find Time to Write?

“The dawntime is precious; the world is quiet.  No one will interrupt you; you are rested and ready.”  –William Stafford

When I’m asked how I find time to write, I begin my answer by talking about my wife.  Because I try to write everyday, at least a page, that means that she spends at least the first three hours of everyday by herself taking care of our two kids while I’m holed up in the basement talking to myself and zipping away on the keys.  If I were a father with no wife, I am sure I would write much less.  I’ve heard of writers who practically resented their families because of the time it stole from their writing, but I write much more a married man with children than I ever did single.  There was too much time spent late-night in bars, too many sleepy and lazy mornings.  I work best when I am working off the foundation that my family provides.  I work best when I know that if I don’t write first thing in the morning, I probably won’t write.

When I first decided that I wanted to write, I re-arranged my life so that I could do it.  I taught at Vance High School in Charlotte where classes began at 7:15 in the morning.  I quit that job and began teaching at Weddingtion Middle School where school started at 8:30 and I knew the janitor got there at 6:00 to open the doors.  That gave me at least two good hours of work before my day actually began.  Back then I thought 5:30 an ungodly hour to get up, but I wanted to write more than I wanted to sleep.  Now I get up at 4:45 three days a week when I am teaching.  I’ve decided that I like to write more than I like to play golf, more than I like to watch sitcoms or see the New York Knicks play seventy of their games.  I’ve read that those who read on the web like bulletted lists.  Here’s my list, in order of importance, of how I think I’m able to write:

  • I have my wife’s blessing to do it first thing
  • I get up early
  • I try to write everyday
  • I know that work leads to more work.  What feels like work today is a little closer to fun the next.


My novel, Love on the Big Screen, is forthcoming with Cherokee McGhee press in January of 2011.  If you’re on Facebook, I’d appreciate it if you’d become a fan of the press and send me a message hello.