by Deborah Elliott-Upton
I love writing exercises, especially the â€œwhat ifâ€ questions. At the Frontiers in Writing conference this past weekend, I attended Melanie Rigneyâ€™s â€œCreative Cornerâ€ sessions. I had no idea what the workshop would involve, but I love Melanieâ€™s free spirit mingled with her sharp editorâ€™s mind.
As Melanieâ€™s conference host, I attended this class twice and admit I cheated. We were to pair off with a partner we did not know well. The first time I chose Karl Smith, a soft-spoken man who writes beautiful poetry and for the second, I grabbed Jeff Campbell, a cowboy/detective/mystery writer.
Melanie placed torn-from-magazine pages over a large table and asked us each to pick one. Both times I chose the same photo of a beautiful, young redhead wearing spike heels. In mid-twirl, she was not so much dressed as engulfed in a grayish-black fur. The lining peeking through was plaid. The coat may have been the only clothing she wore and swirled around her like she was being swallowed by the furry, black and white plaid monster. Melanie then instructed us to write the opening sentence to a novel inspired by the photograph. Mine was:
The dress code would never be the same after Giselle became school superintendent.
The second part of the exercise was trading photos with your partner and writing the ending sentence to their story (and all this while not knowing what they had written for their opening sentence.) I donâ€™t remember word-for-word either Karl’s or Jeffâ€™s endings to my story and I would not want to misquote them, but they were good, although quite different from each other. Melanie mentioned when we think of a time when we felt different, it isnâ€™t always a negative. Sometimes, being different is a good thing. Itâ€™s why Mickey Spillaneâ€™s mysteries are different from Raymond Chandler or Bill Pronzini or Clark Howard or even Deborah Elliott-Upton.
Will I write the story suggested by the magazine photo? Who knows? The whole idea is to surprise the mind and excite the Muse by creating something on the spur of the moment. Iâ€™ve warned Melanie I am stealing her idea for my own classes. She didnâ€™t mind and even presented me with the prompts. Right now, the redheaded, fur-loving woman is tacked on the wall next to my computer, daring me to take chances with being different.
Walking away with new ideas and tools is partly why writers attend such conferences. Networking is number one, but discovering ways to become a better writer is critical to keep the writing fresh. (For those who are interested, drop by my web site to read my article on Risky Writing.)
After the conference, there are always new books to read by authors we meet. Iâ€™m adding Barry Eisler to my booklist. I enjoy meeting burgeoning mystery writers like Katy Britten (someday everyone will know her name, but I am on the ground floor as a Katy fan.) The past few years I have added Michael Bracken, Sunny Frazier and Robert S. Levinson to my growing list of authors to read. I met Michael at a Mystery Writers of America conference and Sunny and Robert online. Knowing them and reading their work has made a difference in my life.
So, Iâ€™m wondering, what makes you different? Warning: Be prepared. I just may steal a story idea from your answer.