On Storytelling

I stumbled across a list of storytelling tips from Emma Coats, based on her time working at Pixar. Good reading. I need to get better at #7.

The Jackal Girl (trailer fragment)


The steady breathing of a large animal is heard as it races through the forest underbrush, weaving in and out among the trees.


Some things should not exist.


Ramona, 21, plain, tall, and slender, walks down the dark hall in her pajamas.  She slowly pushes open the door to her grandmother’s room. The lit bedside table lamp reveals an old woman lying in her bed, dead.

The door opens further to reveal the dead woman’s ghostly form standing beside the bed, staring down at the corpse. The ghost turns from the bed and reaches an incorporeal hand toward Ramona.


Some things exist whether we choose to believe in them or not.


A rental car with out-of-state plates is pulled off onto what little shoulder there is of the forest road.  Two men exit the car: Eamon, a large, red-headed man appearing to be in his fifties, and Ciarán, a tall young man appearing about twenty-five.

(inhales deeply, shutting the driver door)

She’s close.

(eyes unfocused, listening as if with a sixth sense)

I can feel her.

In the forest, the large animal lets out a whine, its breath more labored now.

(eyes coming back into focus; quietly)

She’s frightened.

Written for the writing prompt, The Movie Trailer.

Copyright © 2011 Jennifer A. Liss

Bagel run

I’m a light sleeper but I’m convinced that I learned this behavior.

Dad is an early riser. If I wanted to join him on his Sunday morning bagel run, then I needed to be up early. For some time, I wouldn’t wake up until I heard the sound of the sun catcher rattling against the glass of the side door, followed by the click of the lock—too late!

Eventually, I trained my body to wake up at sound of the shuffling of bare feet on hall carpet. After the bathroom door closed, I had about thirty minutes. Generally, I’d go back to sleep for a few more minutes before getting up, getting fully dressed, and waiting for the bathroom to be free.

Then Dad and I would climb into whichever car Dad was driving at the time—Aries/Blazer/Jeep—and cruising through the pre-dawn morning, up 73 to the family-owned bagel place in Marlton. The way back was a less direct route: a leisurely drive past Cherokee High School to Kettle Run Road, which wound through pine lands and lakes, to Taunton Road and back to Berlin. No matter what the weather, these drives are always beautiful.

The key though, was hearing those footsteps in the hall.

Written for the writing prompt, Footsteps in the Hall.

Copyright © 2011 Jennifer A. Liss

Dry leaves. Dust. Sunshine.

The red, patterned carpet on the short flight of stairs leading down to the front door isn’t as worn here as it is in other places in the house. The sun coming through the glass door warms the entry way. The gray slate floor of the landing releases a  warm, vaguely wet smell. I crouch down on the middle stair, hiding from those up on the main floor. Dust fills my nose as I watch the legs of aunts and uncles move from the kitchen to the dinning room, readying the table.

My sister reaches down through the black wrought iron bars of the handrail and pokes me. The quick movement of my head brings the smell of dry leaves—earthy remnants of an earlier walk in a neighbor’s woods. I growl at her, thrusting my face up against the bars. As I inhale quickly to snarl at her again, the hard, metal tang of iron collects at the back of my throat.

The smokey smell of turkey, which has lingered about the house as it cooked throughout the day, intensifies as the bird is carved. Someone corrals young and old into the dinning room. The room gets close as warm bodies settle and crowd around around the table.

Later. A game of cards around the same table extends far into the night. I practice shuffling the deck, the waxy smell of the coated cards puffs into my face with each successfully executed bridge.

I nuzzle into faintly floral-smelling sheets and blanket, no longer able to keep awake enough to whisper to my sister in the dark.

Written for the writing prompt, Focusing on Sense of Smell.

Copyright © 2011 Jennifer A. Liss

Author Tools: Publishing from WordPress

Imagine you’re an author who uses your WordPress install to publish your work on your website. What if you wanted to export and distribute your blog posts–an anthology of short stories, research, or an image portfolio–as a PDF? Quite some time ago, I stumbled upon a WordPress plugin called Anthologize that does just that. It was discussed in a post at Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog. Here is an overview of what this plugin does, lifted from the Anthologize website:

Anthologize: grab, craft, publish.

Anthologize 0.5-alpha includes the following core features:

  • Use your existing WordPress blog content as the basis for your project;
  • Import content feeds from non-WordPress blogs and other publishing platforms;
  • Create a project containing one or more parts (chapters, acts, etc);
  • Add, update, remove, and reorder parts;
  • Add, update, remove, reorder, and merge individual items in parts;
  • Edit project items through standard WordPress editing interface;
  • Export your projects to: TEI, PDF, and ePUB.

It’s important to note that this plugin only works with WordPress 3.0 and PHP5 or higher and it only works on users installations (downloaded from wordpress.org and maintained on a server at a domain other than wordpress.com).

The possibilities created by this plugin are incredibly compelling to me. I’m a hardcore supporter of using WordPress as a CMS for websites. The ability to repurpose blog content into a ePUB, PDF or TEI file makes me a little giddy. I recommend looking at the case studies listed on the Anthologize website to get a better feel for how this tool might be used. My blogs don’t lend themselves well to this kind of tool but I can certainly see the usefulness of this tool for folks who want to distribute their own ebooks, generate exhibition catalogs, or create brochures and pamphlets about their company.

There’s quite a community built behind this plugin. The Center for History and Media and George Mason University developed this app with NEH funding. Some thought has gone into not just the documentation but the presentation of this plugin by way of logos and branding. It is evident that there is commitment from the developers to continue to shape this tool into a something special. The plugin was last updated a week ago today (I’ve known about the plugin since August).

I hope to give this plugin a try sometime.

Come for the shiny, stay for the…

Things that may help me write more:

  1. Only working 40 hours a week now. No 2nd job. Wahoo!
  2. Acquisition of a new shiny.

I’ve officially declared my 2003 HP laptop dead, after a number of resuscitations. I type at you now on an iPad. It IS an experience completely unlike typing on a laptop. I can’t recommend it for everyone. It does what I need it to do when I’m mobile. If I end up with a car after the divorce, I’ll look into a desktop solution to handle everything else, like running the Adobe suite and, you know, a DVD-ROM. That aside, the iPad takes zero time to boot and I can blog, edit wikis, tweak CSS, do the social web thing, read books and comics and watch streaming video. Did I mention that it’s shiny? I can check my hair in between meetings. Totally rad.

I haven’t been doing a lot of creative writing but I have been getting in some journaling. Most of it is self-therapy, private kind of scribbling, so it’s not showing up here. Hope to change that soon. A bit of my rantiness is coming back (Oh, HI, world. So sorry, I forgot you were there in my self-absorbed musings…), so at the very least I can start blogging again.

No new writing goals right now. I’m still adjusting to this my-weekends-are-free-now thing. I’m enjoying all of the possibilities for reinvention.


WrAnyMo Progress

3993 / 30000

I’m back on track for today. I’m two days and 2,000 words behind for the month thus far but I’m sure I can recoup that! Hey… 2,000 could be written out as “two thousand.” Note to self.

[This post’s word count does not count toward WrAnyMo2009 total.]


Getting up earlier in the mornings to write is starting to become problematic. Earlier in the week, it worked very well but by Wednesday, I was feeling uber tired by 8pm. Last night, I sat down to write a piece about my sister since it was her birthday yesterday. I got about 30 minutes in before I was falling asleep where I was sitting. In retrospect, tapping away on my wireless keyboard while reclined in bed was probably NOT the best idea.

A curious thing about writing when that tired: I edit MORE. I expected the opposite to be true; nonetheless, I found myself fighting the narrative stream appearing on the screen. I spent a lot to time going back and trying to impose order on my scattered thoughts. I am not one of those that believes that being “in the moment” and writing whatever comes out makes for good reading. I might do this in a journal but I’d never want to read that entry again. I certainly wouldn’t subject a reader to the pain of reading that crap either.

I don’t have a word count for what I managed to get out last night before crashing so I’ll have to update my word account again later. It was no where near the thousand I needed. I’m lucky if I got to 400. This puts my significantly behind but I’m not worried yet. When I was writing more regularly, I worked better with large blocks of time. This weekend I work Friday night and Saturday morning so I’ll have big chunks of time to write this weekend.

WrAnyMo Reality Check

WrAnyMo Progress

2883 / 30000

I’ve found a new advantage to the daylight savings time switch: I’m awake an hour earlier, which means that yesterday I had almost an hour of writing time before getting ready for work.  I managed to get more than half of the review done for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I finished the review this morning. What slowed me down in posting the review was all of the editing, tweaking and expanding that I was doing during the process of writing and after I was done writing. As it is, I KNOW there are still errors in the review I haven’t caught.

The review isn’t as thorough as I’d like but I’m never going to get to 30,000 words this month if I keep obsessively editing everything I write so that I can publish it on one of the blogs. This might mean that I’m posting less of my writing output (I hadn’t planned on posting any of my creative writing but I hoped that SOMETHING might be shared).

I am a little worried about keeping a steady flow of ideas so I’ve been less attentive to my RSS feeds the last few mornings and more intent on using bus ride time to brainstorm.  Every idea gets a new draft in my WordPress app (oh ho, that’s ANOTHER topic, the new WordPress 2.0 app <grumble>), which I’ll expand into a fuller post. Later, I can sort out whether I want specifics posts to be either public or private.

Things I’ve learned thus far:

  • Don’t over-edit. In some cases, don’t edit at all.
  • It’s not necessary to post everything.
  • Wi-fi access is good if I’m finishing a public post and need to add links but very distracting if I’m trying to sit down and write creatively for a solid hour.
  • When writing fiction or non-fiction, flag words, phrases or facts I’m unsure of and move on.

I noticed that my previously posted WrAnyMo meter was wrong (I used the NaNo 50,000 instead of my 30,000 word count goal), so I updated that post. I’ve included a progress bar widget on Puddles so that I don’t have to worry about including it on each post. I can’t do the same on Jottings because it will break my theme. The count above is where I’m at currently.

I hope to do some catching up tonight!

I Reject Your Rules and Insert My Own

NaNoWriMo began yesterday. I am not participating.

Others who are not partaking of the NaNo: Kristen, who is busy shopping her first novel and has already started her second; The INTERN (whose blog is worth a looksie) is sans NaNo; and heck, countless authors1 aren’t participating– OK, fine, writing is an author’s JOB, so really, November is just another month… but STILL.

I’ve seen a number of alternatives to ‘let’s write a 50,000 word novel in one month,’ in which, might I add, ONE WEEK is killed if you travel home for Thanksgiving2. NaNoReVisMo, or, Nation Novel Revision Month, was proposed by The INTERN. While I have no desire to jump into writing a novel at the moment, revising a previous work is tempting; however, I wrote my last novel when I was in JUNIOR HIGH. That is not revision. That is printing the abomination and burning it. That is ripping out the drive containing Abomination and smashing it pieces. That is reworking characters and plot and completely rewriting Abomination as a brand new work. Right, perhaps not.

Kristen had a thought: make a pledge to blog every (or almost every) day in November. BEDN isn’t as catchy an acronym as BEDA (Blog Every Day in April); nonetheless, the suggestion is still in the spirit of focusing on writing output.

I will be writing this month. It may come in the form of scenes, character studies, short stories, blog posts, reviews, textual criticism or whatever else I feel like writing at the moment. I should probably keep a word count goal in mind. 50,000 words is rather arbitrary when taken out of the novel context but I do wish to keep quantity the focus.  I’m going to reduce the quota to 30,000 words in 30 days. There is no science to this number, I just like the number three. And what the heck should I call my little project?

  • At Least I’m Writing Something Month (AtLImWriSoMo)
  • Write Anything Month (WrAnyMo)
  • Write, Gorram It (WriGoIt)

In the interest of not agonizing over the appropriate name/abbreviation all day, I will settle with WrAnyMo. I don’t want to cross-post everything I publish here on Puddles (and vice-versa) so I’ll Tweet links to all public posts, regardless of where they appear, using the tag #WrAnyMo2009.

I started yesterday on a creative piece and only hit 506 words but some blogging should quickly up that count and get me back on track for the slightly late start.

To Star and Jenn and everyone else who is doing NaNoWriMo: YAY! RA! GO! Best of luck : )

WrAnyMo Progress

1092 / 30000

1. A mighty triumvirate of seriously cool women YA writers, Maureen Johnson, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Melissa Marr, have confirmed that they are not participating this year. Maureen has pledged to give NaNo advise throughout November, which is sure to be just the thing you need for procrastination and a chuckle. Back to text.

2. Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday, not because of the significance behind it but because of how it is celebrated: with family. I am not driving 12 (Jersey)-16 (Mass.) hours each way only to spend the whole visit 1.) feeling guilty for ignoring my family in order to meet my quota or 2.) feeling guilty for spending time with my family and not meeting my quota. If I make it back this year, it will be the first time in two years I’ve been home. I’m damn well making the most it. Back to text.

Stopping to Ask for Directions

It’s becoming clear that I’m using the story, characters, and relationship dynamics in Jackal as a way to work things out in my personal life. I’ve gotten too close to this project, which is preventing me from getting any farther. I don’t wish to file Jackal away in my ever-growing story file. At the same time, I’m learning about works that deal with a similar premise of seeing the dead or interacting with the dead (I recently started watching Dead Like Me, which is an excellent show thus far). Sure, my story is different but I don’t want to wear out a premise that already has quite a bit of treatment lately in recent print, TV and movies because heaven knows, that if I wished to do so, I’d begin crafting a story about vampires. If I’m going to carry on with Jackal, it better be able to offer something different.

I’m considering utilizing the aid of a plot generator, much as Star has previously mentioned using (Star, if you’re reading this, do you still have that link handy? I muddled around your archives but couldn’t find it). It’s a rather backwards way to do things (ideally, you use a plot generator FIRST) and I don’t know if I’ll be able to let certain plot specifics go in order to accommodate new ones. On the other hand, using such a tool may help give me some direction. Even if it only acts as a spring board, it will be well worth trying.

Unfortunately, writing will have to wait for the moment, as I focus on moving the Starrynight website off of a CMS.

Details, Details

Found this rotting in my Drafts folder:

A self-sequestered night at Owen Valley Flooring while Russell worked at the drive-in a few months ago proved to be productive. I did some more exploring of Ramona’s character. I’m good about getting character traits but not always good about translating those into physical choices. Car or public transit? If a car, is this car fun? Fuel efficient? Merely operational? Sometimes, details help paint a better picture of the character. If I tell you that she loves funky hats, you may already have an idea of who she is or even what she looks like. Incidentally, Ramona doesn’t like hats at all and she rarely bothers with accessories, much to her best friend’s chagrin. Sketching out such details helped me discover who Ramona is. She’s not fussy. She prefers to keep things simple. She’s a little lazy. She’s unhappy because she’s static. She isn’t growing as a person and her friends aren’t helping her in this matter.

It was a little bizarre figuring out when she was born and what kind of culture she grew up in. She would have been roughly 5 or 6 when Pinky and the Brain first aired. She is of generation that always had cell phones (and her mom insisted that she have one when she was quite young, even though Ramona didn’t use it much until later in high school). I also found out more about her family dynamic and how this might affect relationships in the future.

Note to self: don’t ignore the details.


Whoa, BEDA 7! The excerpt below was written this afternoon in a rush, so please forgive the roughness. I wrote this as a way to get to know Ramona and Ciarán better. I learned a few new things about Ramona. Ciarán, however, is holding out on me. I still don’t hear his accent in my head, which isn’t helping. Apologies to anyone reading this who has NO idea what the back story is but maybe that is better…

Continue reading “Veils”

In Which She Learns More Wiki Markup

I’ve been working on beefing up wiki entries on all things Jackal, since I have been stewing on numerous points that really need to be written down somewhere that is not loose bits of paper or forgotten GoogleDocs.

I got stuck when trying to frame out a timeline, so I let it be for the moment in favor of working on some of the rules for the universe I’m writing. I needed to figure out veils and gates and parallel realities, mythology and folklore from a variety of sources (ancient Egyptian, shape-shifting lore from all over) and, most importantly, the human dimension that will make this whole thing work. Once I started hashing out these background details, the big plot pieces that were troubling me started to fall into place. Ah hah!

So, even with clean up and additions to the wiki, I am happy to report that I have much, much more to add. It’s almost as if I’m beginning to get somewhere.

Power of Repetition

In writing a recent post over at Puddles, I realized that I have a tendency to use repetition quite a bit. In the aforementioned post, I ended a few of the paragraphs with a refrain. It’s not the same every time but it is structured in a specific way:

[sentence]. [1-2 words]. [single word].

If that post had been longer, I think the repetition would have evolved into something more normalized.

[sentence]. [1 word describing sound, motion, etc., e.g., ‘Grumble,’ ‘Grr,’ ‘Facepalm’]. [single word, e.g., ‘Onward’].

The final repetition ends with the refrain changing:

[sentence]. Sigh. End.

The repetition was deliberate but I didn’t reflect much on why I was using it. In looking over earlier posts, in which I attempt to entertain with my writing instead of treating the post as a journal entry, it seems that repetition is one of my favorite devices. A great thing about repetition is that it’s scalable. I may utilize an exaggerated parallel structure within single sentences (as I’m doing in this sentence), I may use lists, or I may sustain a refrain over several paragraphs (or indeed, entire novels).

I like using repetition because it helps pull a reader into the story. Predictability can be detrimental but, if used as a device (instead of predictability arising from poor plot construction or flat characters), it is much like letting a reader in on a joke. I may or may not have pulled that off in my “Walks 2009.001” post but there was definitely a semi-conscious effort to wink at the reader, who (I hope) is already nodding, because they know where I’m going.

Things to think about: Is repetition annoying, even if done well? Does it talk down to the reader? Is repetition a cheap trick? Is it too obvious or affected? What are other examples of authors or works that pull off repetition well? Are there other ways to help engage readers, allowing them to be quasi-co-conspirators in my writing? Conversely, which stylistic techniques are useful for distancing readers from my writing?

How to Break a Heart

I realized it as I talked out the relationship between characters with Tim yesterday: Ramona has to hurt Ciarán. Badly. That will not be fun to write. Not sure of the when or how yet. Ro just doesn’t have the life experience or maturity that Ciarán has, especially in the romantic relationship department.

I’m trying to ignore the love interest for the moment and focus on what Ro will be going through physically and psychologically. Will Ro be willing to entertain a relationship when she is spending so much of her energy focusing on not turning into a giant black jackal and eating* half the town? She isolates herself to protect those around her from the monster that she feels she is.

Also, Ro has to relearn her body. She looks taller (she’s already about 5’9) when in fact she has grown more wiry, even though she’s eating like crazy. Her senses are altered, her hormones and cycle get out of normal sync. She’s restless and she is often disoriented by sudden, unpredictable flashes of the veil. Romance isn’t the first thing on her mind and Ciarán is fully aware of this and gives her space- but Eamon may not…

Still working on really reasoning out the practicals of being a human/jackal/quasi-mythical creature. Not sure about a lot of the laws of this universe yet.

*Ro’s imagination gets away with her- Jackals don’t eat people!


Lately, the only chatter on this blog has been housekeeping-related or private (only because those posts were more very specific notes-to-self and incoherent). So I thought I’d update.

I haven’t done any writing although I did some more character sketching over the holiday break (although sadly, I did this on paper so I will have to get that onto the wiki at some point). I fleshed out Ciarán’s background and pondered over relationships some more. I think it will be a challenge getting Ramona’s family dynamic just right, especially if I decide to go with the ‘stolen child’ plot line, à la Irish (and other cultures’) tales of children being spirited away.

I’ve also found that the tone is evolving. At first, there was a strictly fantasy/adventure feel, then horror, and, most recently, a fairytale-like quality. This isn’t necessarily a problem, especially since practically nothing has been written yet. Up until now tone wasn’t something I was even thinking about.

In an attempt to find some inspiration, I’ve been referring to books from Russell’s library as well as IU library to do some research on ancient Egyptian ideas about the afterlife. I have lots of flagged chapters to skim through when I have a free moment.


I forgot to follow up on my previous post on character naming woe (a minor woe in comparison to the ‘crap, I have writer’s block’ woe or the ‘crap, my laptop died and my novel is gone’ woe). Ciarán finally has a surname: McDonagh.

So why did I get so excited about a surname anyway? Finding a surname meant localizing Ciarán, which is very important for determining his speech pattern. Ciarán hails from the West of Ireland (still deciding on where exactly). The farther west you go in Ireland, the more likely it is that you will cross into the Gaeltacht, areas of Ireland were the primary language spoken is Gaelic. Now that I know what general area Ciarán is from, I can begin looking into dialects hailing from Connacht. I’ll be much happier when Ciarán has a voice. I won’t know him until he does.

I’m enjoying going through the photos, maps and travel journals from my trips to Ireland. Research can be just as fun as the actual writing.

We, the People

I began writing about my voting experience and, for whatever reason, it came out as a personal narrative instead of my usual ramble. It wasn’t quite suited for posting on Puddles. I’ll post fragments here, since the whole thing is rather stream of conscious and hard to follow (and edit!). The result is quite brief, perfect for those who are short on time! Continue reading “We, the People”