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#8--Writing Out of the Box

Posted: Sun Mar 07, 2010 4:49 pm
by glorybee
Today’s Quick Take: ok

It’s not a word. It’s not even a correct abbreviation. If you’re writing it in dialog or in narrative, spell it out.

“Mom, I’m going to pet this little black animal with a white stripe, okay?”
I wondered whether it would be okay to go to the job interview with blue hair.

If you want to use the abbreviation, that’s fine (but not in formal writing)—just make sure you capitalize both letters.

Jessie looked across the lecture hall, where Bob signaled an OK with his fingers.

If you’re using the abbreviation, both letters are always capitalized. Any other way of writing it is just not Ok. Or ok. Okay?

The idea for today’s class came to me as I was reading through the Beginner and Intermediate entries of the Writing Challenge this week. The topic, you’ll remember, was ‘eek!’, and I was amazed at the number of entrants who wrote stories featuring mice. Certainly some entries took on creative POVs, and some were written very cleverly…but after a while, I started to think oh no, another mousie...

Just to hammer the point home (and because I’m a statistics nerd), I did a survey of all four challenge levels. In Beginners, 30% of the stories featured mice or rats. Intermediate—27%, Advanced—33%, Masters—17%, or 28% of the total stories for the week. And although I didn’t compile statistics for these, there were dozens of stories featuring snakes, bugs, and other wee beasties.

Granted—‘eek!’ was a week in which it was particularly difficult to write ‘out of the box’. Nevertheless, I think that sort of creative thinking is vital for writers, not just of the Writing Challenge, but in the real world of writing, for the following reasons:

1. Many writing contests require writing to a prompt. I just looked online for about three minutes and found the following prompts for recent writing contests: family stories, shipwrecks, mother’s day, career transition, beauty, if I ruled the world, apartments and neighbors. If you’re going to be submitting your work to writing contests, it has to stand out; some of these contests have thousands of entrants.

2. Every genre of writing has its own list of expectations: from devotionals to poetry, from romance to fantasy, readers and publishers have particular expectations. If you read exclusively in a certain genre—say, mystery—you know that formulas have to be followed: the crime, the collection of clues, the red herrings, the multiple motives/suspects, the solving of the crime, the final twist. SO—since there are expectations to be followed, you must also find a way to make your writing different, memorable, unique.

3. Even if you have smaller goals—just writing for the challenge, maybe hitting the Top 40—writing creatively is one important step for getting there. Again, I’m just using ‘eek!’ as an example (this could be written about any number of challenge topics), but imagine a poor judge, reading her umpteenth story about a mouse. And then she clicks to the next entry, and it’s about an adopted 3-year-old from Korea, who can’t communicate with her new family until an ‘eek’ about a toy being dropped in her cup of milk provides their first common language. Do you think that will stick out in the judge’s mind?

How do you step out of the box, then? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Write the topic word on the top of a piece of paper

2. Start to brainstorm—everything you can think of that’s related to the topic word. Let’s say the word is HORN. You might write trumpet, trombone, tuba, Little Boy blue, cows, the car horn, Abraham catches the ram by the horn, walls of Jericho, rhinoceros, to lock horns with, take the bull by the horns. Think of song titles, movie titles, book titles, biblical references, popular sayings. See if you can come up with at least 10 items—even more, if possible—in about five minutes.

3. Look at your list and ask yourself: are there things on this list that will occur to other people?

4. Crumple up the list and throw it away. Because if you thought of all those things in about five minutes, it’s a sure thing that dozens of other writers thought of them, too. Seriously. Throw the whole list away. Don’t look at it again.

5. Start over, with the determination that you’re going to avoid every common reference to ‘horn’. Your second list should contain things that are more obscure: the horn of Africa, alpenhorns, on the horns of a dilemma, those squeaky tricycle horns, famous statue of Moses with horns, the gross spit valve of the kid next to me in band in high school, those creme horns at the bakery. At this point, you can even do some googling, too.

6. If you’re still stuck, try a randomization exercise that has sometimes worked for me—grab the book or magazine next to you and open to a random page. Point to a random line. Use one of the words on that line in conjunction with the topic word, and build a story around it. (I just grabbed the book on my end table, a guidebook to Washington, D.C. The sentence had the words restaurant, bar, seating, indoor, water, overheated. I could write about a blind date in a restaurant totally decorated with animal horns, which absolutely creeps out the woman. No, that’s clichéd—it creeps out the man. She thinks it’s awesome, and orders the Safari special, grubs and crocodile eggs…)

HOMEWORK: I’m going to give you a topic word. Without looking at the other responses, make a list of 5-10 things that immediately come to mind (and thus should not be the basis of a challenge entry). THEN, come up with 1 out-of-the-box approach to the topic. And just because it's out-of-the-box, that doesn't mean it has to be insanely weird. Just not something that would be likely to be thought of by others.

THEN—I encourage you to look at the other responses on the thread, to see if your list corresponds with theirs, and also to see if your out-of-the-box idea shows up on anyone else’s list.

Please feel free to comment or ask questions! And don’t apologize if you were one of those mouse writers; it’s really not necessary. I was feeling testy last week, and I wasn’t a judge—and you were in good company!

I’d love to hear from anyone in Advanced or Masters who has their own process for coming up with out-of-the-box entries. C’mon, you creative thinkers—how do you come up with those wonderful ideas?


Posted: Sun Mar 07, 2010 5:05 pm
by CatLin
The first five things that came to mind:

1. A burn victim in the hospital

2. Losing everything you own in a fire

3. 'You're FIRED!"

4. A bonfire party, or the bonfire before the homecoming dance

5. A romantic evening in front of the fire place.


Out of the box:

A gopher family's home is threatened by an oncoming prairie fire. The smoke will suffocate them if it gets into their burrow. They are forced to tunnel away from the home they've always known, and they meet another clan of gophers. This new clan has harnessed the power of fire, and use it in their burrows to cook and for warmth. They've even built (drilled) chimneys.

(first wacky idea that popped into my head)


Ok, I see I'm the first one, so I can't wait to see what everyone else says! I quizzed Brad, and out of his first five, only one matched one of mine (my #2 - we both thought of our friends Dave & Judy, who just lived through this.)

As for "out of the box", I'm not very good at it. I couldn't think of a SINGLE thing for EEK that didn't involve something creepy-crawly-scampery. I've read a few Master's entries this week, and have noticed a definite trend. ;) One in particular I found extremely creative, even tho it DID involve a mouse.

For Shh, my bumping against the side of the box idea came while watching Olympic skiing. The commentators were silent, and all you could hear was sshhhh shhhh shhhhh. :lol:

I tell my friends the topic every week at bowling, and when I told Jill what I wrote about, she said, "OHH I was hoping you heard that. I heard it too and thought about your writing topic." :lol:

Okay, probably more commentary than you wanted, so I'll stop rambling. EXCEPT to say "THANKS" for the lesson on "okay". I didn't know that! I always type Ok. (The previous sentence is the first time ever I've spelled it out.)


Posted: Sun Mar 07, 2010 5:35 pm
by glorybee
Catrina, thanks for responding so quickly--wow!

Your out-of-the-box idea is awesome--that's a place my brain would never have gone. I'll be curious as to your first 5 thoughts, and whether they match anyone else's....guess I'll just stay tuned.

I like what you said about inspiration hitting you during the Olympics. When I was writing for the Challenge, I'd let the word bounce around in my brain for 4 or 5 days, and something interesting and different would occur to me in the strangest places--the shower, the bathroom at work, doing laundry, the grocery store...

...which makes me think of another point:

7. Give it time. It's not a race--mull over the topic for several days. You never know when something wonderful will spark a great idea in your mind.


Posted: Sun Mar 07, 2010 6:13 pm
Okay, here it goes.

The first five things that popped out from my head about the word topic Fire:

1. St. Elmos's Fire
2. Chariots of Fire
3. Captain Caveman
4. On your mark, get set, go!
5. Ready...aim...


On your mark, Captain Caveman eagerly waits, get set, and go! He dashes swiftly reminiscently reminding us of the scene in Chariots of Fire, ready and aimming to extinquish St. Elmo's Fire.

Goofy, yeah it is, but written less than a minute.

Posted: Sun Mar 07, 2010 6:26 pm
by Tricia
1. Fireplace

2. Hell

3. Campfire

4. Terminate from work

5. Anger

Out of the Box: Pillar of Fire. God used to lead the Israelites in the Wilderness.

Jan, I wracked my brains to come up with a unique idea for "eek." All I could come up with was a mouse story. Can you give us an idea of what else we could have used?

Posted: Sun Mar 07, 2010 6:31 pm
by OldManRivers

1. Fire, fire, pants on fire!

2. "Don't fire until you see the white in their eyes."

3. "You can't fire me! I quit!"

4. We snuggled in front of a roaring fire.

5. The night was filled with fireflies.

Out of the box:

Adam and Eve discover fire and they don't know what to do with it.

Posted: Sun Mar 07, 2010 9:50 pm
by CatLin
glorybee wrote:I like what you said about inspiration hitting you during the Olympics. When I was writing for the Challenge, I'd let the word bounce around in my brain for 4 or 5 days, and something interesting and different would occur to me in the strangest places--the shower, the bathroom at work, doing laundry, the grocery store...]
I have to give credit to Stephen King - I had just finished his "On Writing." His advise: One way (a GOOD way, I've discovered) to come up with the idea for your story: don't search for that elusive original idea- think instead of a situation. I heard the ski-sound on TV and added an element to make it a situation -- What if I were alone in the woods, and I heard the "Shh...shh...shh" of skis, not knowing what that sound was? I built from there.

Posted: Sun Mar 07, 2010 10:03 pm
by Ms. Barbie

Fire place
My car

OUT OF THE BOX: Worshipping God around the fire-pit at the beach

Posted: Sun Mar 07, 2010 10:15 pm
by glorybee
Just a note: my daughter and son-in-law gave us tickets for a concert tonight (Sunday), and I'll be gone all day tomorrow. Will respond to your homework Monday afternoon!

But I do have to mention to Tricia--the out-of-the-box idea I had for "eek" was in the lesson, with the little adopted child saying "eek" and having that be a starting point of communication with her new family.

What about...

A person who breaks a finger or toe--is in great pain but doesn't want to admit it--only lets out a little 'eek' so that she can something

A mom with no fashion sense--how do you like my outfit?--teenage daughter can only 'eek' when she wants to scream

A person falls asleep on a train, when she wakes up there's someone in the seat next to her, who's wearing something startling--the 'eek' is the way she stifles her astonishment

And now I'm too sleepy to come up with more.

I'll be back here about 4:00 Monday....discuss around me!

Posted: Mon Mar 08, 2010 1:52 am
by eireann
I think of what would normally jump into people's minds for the topic and then try to do the opposite.

Normal=Upper room
House fire
Burning farmland

Not so normal=
Fire eater
Radical evangelist
Teenage boy experimenting
Name of a band
Sci-fi name of man

Posted: Mon Mar 08, 2010 8:18 am
by Greghory
I think it's safe to say that much of my writing is out of the box. I share Jan's disdain for mouse stories this week (although there are some good ones out there) and I agree that it's hard when judging to look favorably at a story when you've just finished reading its twin (or triplet or quad or quin!) Yep, creativity is a must. In fact my entry for Eek! was so out of the box that I wasn't even sure whether it was a step too far for FaithWriters. [You can check out the Hints if you want to know more]

I like to let an idea for a story ferment in my head for a couple of days. The big question I ask myself is whether the story line is going to be boring and predictable, in which case I ditch it and start over. Sometimes I've been halfway through writing a story only to realise that I'm already tired of it. The final piece might be well crafted with beautiful dialogue and enchanting description, but if I'm bored writing it, then others will almost certainly be bored reading it. So out it goes. On a good week I have my story drafted by Sunday evening; on a bad week I'm scribbling frantically on the Thursday morning. There is simply no way that I can get a story submitted within two days of the topic being announced. I need that long to decide whether the idea's truly creative

Posted: Mon Mar 08, 2010 8:22 am
by DanielK
As soon as I saw that word Fire, my thoughts started racing. I came up with thirty words ideas in the first five minutes, so here's a list of a third of them.

Gates of Hell, burnt dinner, Guy Fawkes, tongues of fire, fireman, The Human Torch, the Sun, fire and brimstone, Vesuvius, and burnt fingers.

Like I said, there are loads more. I really can see why it's so hard to write out of the box! Anyway, for my out-of-the-box idea, I noticed that it took me ten minutes to come up with Gunfire. Then I thought of a bog where natural gas escapes and burns. And that's how I got the idea of:

A battle between two modern-day armies, complete with tanks and missiles, and all that, around the edge of one of those bogs. The Gunfire turns the battle-ground into a raging inferno, and the soldiers are more at risk of being burnt by the bog than they are of dying from flying bullets.
Okay, it's a bit gruesome.

I'd never thought of leafing through a book to find your ideas. Maybe I'll use that one when I'm next stumped. Thanks, Jan.

Posted: Mon Mar 08, 2010 9:36 am
by yvonblake

1. campfire
2. house burning
3. candle
4. woodstove
5. birthday cake
6. fired from a job
7. Sodom and Gomorrah
8. Elijah and prophets of Baal
9. Moses and Burning Bush
10. altar sacrifice

Out of the Box:

book (Bible) burnings in Great Tribulation

I try to find a different setting or POV than expected.

Posted: Mon Mar 08, 2010 9:41 am
by PamDavis
fire him
fire alarm
fire escape
fire engine

Out of box:
Fire in her eyes

This is fun! Like a game of Password or the old Tom Kennedy game show: You Don’t Say.


Posted: Mon Mar 08, 2010 12:49 pm
by Deconut
My first ten responses to the topic of FIRE:

Fire Fighter
Fire Truck
All consuming fire
Refiner’s Fire
Tongues of fire
House on fire
All fired up
Fire Ants

My out-of the box topic took a lot more thought. I wanted to come up with something that I might actually write about. I settled on:

Fire offered in worship to a foreign god

As always, I had fun with this, as well as learned a helpful lesson.

Thanks Jan!

Kathie Tollifson