From Sarah, With Joy

Sarah Allen on the craft, business, and joy of being a writer.

Writing tips every Monday

Story time every Thursday

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Writer's Secret Weapon For Infinite Ideas: Incongruity

Perhaps the question writers are most often asked--and perhaps the one we have the hardest time answering--is where do we get our ideas.

Not only is it unclear where ideas come from, there seems to be no reliable way to make them come when we need them. If only there were a magic box under every writers bed that popped out the right idea whenever we needed it. If only there were elves that came out at night and finished that scene we've been stuck on. If only there were a tree that dropped idea apples every day at 5:47. Then we'd have an easy answer.

But, unfortunately, none of these things are actually available. The reality is much more of a slog. Whether we're trying to brainstorm an idea for a new novel, or we're stuck in the middle of our WIP and need an idea to get it moving forward, writers spend lots of time glaring at computer screens.

Now, there may not be a magic idea tree in every writer's backyard, but there may actually be a strategy or trick that's so helpful it may as well be magic. At least it has been incredibly helpful for me. This strategy can help at any stage of the brainstorming process--whether we're developing a character, designing our setting, or trying to figure out how to add more tension to a scene. This strategy--this secret weapon--is incongruity.

In other words, put something there that doesn't belong.

At least, something that doesn't seem to belong on the surface. Say you're working on a novel about two college roommates. One is a biology major, the other is going into physical therapy. Say you're in the middle of this novel, and you're stuck on a scene that seems to be falling completely flat. Then imagine the physical therapist finds a dozen Duke Ellington records under the biologists bed. That's something that doesn't appear to belong. That adds interest and intrigue.

Now, say you're developing your characters and setting. Add something to your character or setting that doesn't seem to belong. Here are some examples:

What is a piano doing in the middle of a possibly burnt forest? Aren't you intrigued by the back story of a man with a Mohawk and a Santa suit? These kinds of seeming incongruities are what catch and keep the readers attention. They are little mysteries your reader will keep reading to figure out. 

There are entire stories based on and extrapolated from a single incongruity. A human in Santa's workshop? That's the movie Elf. What about a blond high-school beauty queen going to Harvard Law School? Legally Blonde. That one is particularly fun because you get to see a bunch of stereotypes get busted. And perhaps one of my favorites--a meter-high gardener helping to take down a Dark Lord and his entire kingdom? Hello Samwise Gamgee :)

So next time you're trying to brainstorm ideas for your next project, or you're trying to flesh out your next main character, or you're trying to figure your way out of a mucky middle bit, try this simple technique. Try simply adding something that doesn't seem to belong, and see where that takes you. You may discover something delightful. Like Will Ferrell in yellow tights.

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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  • The First Line Magazine: All stories must be written with the first line provided. Due Nov. 1
  • Writers Digest: Your Story 61Write the opening sentence (just one, of 25 words or fewer) to a story based on a photo given. You can be funny, poignant, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story. Due Oct. 13.
  • BathHouse Magazine: The international hypermedia journal BathHouse is currently accepting submissions for its 12.1 issue with the underlying theme of "International". Due Nov. 17.
  • Cactus Heart Magazine: Speculative themed issue. We want beautifully written fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, & reimagined fairy tales. Send your character-driven stories & poems full of magic, spaceships, & clockwork gadgets; send stories & poems that play on tropes, & make us reflect on our humanity along with gods, banshees, & cyborgs. Due Jan. 10.
  • Drunken Odyssey Podcast: The Drunken Odyssey, an amazing writing podcast, needs personal essays for its “Book that Changed my Life” segments. Send pitches for essay ideas to For approved pitches, essays should be between 500 and 800 words. Ongoing. 


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ayn Rand Is My Nemesis

So I've known for a while that I don't particularly like Ayn Rand.

Then yesterday I read Anthem.

It's a bit of a long story why I ended up reading it, but suffice it to say my roommate and I read it simultaneously yesterday afternoon on Project Gutenberg. It's very short (thank do people suffer through Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead?) and easily readable in an afternoon.

To be totally honest, I had so many problems with it I'm not quite sure where to even start. My roommate and I kept up a running commentary on Google chat, so maybe I'll just start with that. And believe me, I will do my best to be civil. (And to that end we won't even talk about the writing style...or the dialog...)

Probably the main crux of my problem with this book is that Rand sets up a false dichotomy from the very beginning. One of the rules in this dystopic community she's set up is that "If you are not needed by your brother man, there is no reason for you to burden the earth with your bodies." She sets this rule up as sort of an "evil" to be fought, which in contrast sets up the "correct" rule that taking care of ones own needs is primary and serving others is secondary, if not pointless. Let's keep going before we address this, because she just keeps making this point more and more strongly.

When the main character meets a beautiful girl, they decide to give each other individual names. He calls her The Golden One (which is also problematic, and we'll talk about it later) and she calls him The Unconquered. Again, Rand is setting up this dichotomy that because Main Character is thinking about himself rather than some sort of collective, he is free and "unconquered."

This idea of the main character as "Superior Enlightened Individual" is further strengthened when he attempts to offer up his newly discovered power of electricity. The community "brethren" are frightened and shocked at his stepping outside the collective knowledge, refuse his offering, and Main Character is basically sentenced to death. The way this interchange is described, with the Main Character talking about discovering and offering "the power of the skies," frames the Main Character as vastly superior and everyone else as very unfortunate, dim-witted, and brainwashed.

Once Main Character and Golden One have escaped into the forest and discovered the word "I," the main character says, "Neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs. I am not a bandage for their wounds. I am not a sacrifice on their altars."

Do you see the point Ayn Rand is trying to make? She's not exactly subtle. She is again and again saying that all is in service of the Self, that even considering the needs of others is of last priority, if it makes the list at all. Main Character says of their newly discovered house and life: "We shall not share it with others, as we share not our joy with them, nor our love, nor our hunger. So be it to the end of our days."

Sorry, but...can I go throw up now? Doesn't this character sound like such a nice guy? And to make it even better, after he says this, the only response from Trophy Wife is "Your will be done." (Told you she was problematic. We're not super focused on complex female characters who are there to do anything other than serve the needs of the Man in this book...) Okay sorry, back to attempting civility...

I see the dichotomy that Rand sets up of "I vs. We" as a false one and here's why: Can't we be a means to an end for someone else without existing only as a means to an end for someone else? Can't we be useful to someone without being a tool? Can't we serve without being a servant, comfort without being a bandage, sacrifice without being a sacrifice?

And I'll take it another step further. Not only do we absolutely not give up any individual identity in the service and care of others, but I firmly believe that in many ways we discover and develop that identity through that service. I feel like it's a core, foundational belief for me that he who loses his life in the service of others will find it. And there are lots of scientific studies that back that up. And amazing, amazing TED Talks about how focusing so strongly on our own goals and desires and needs can actually be the very thing that makes us unhappy.

Now, contrast the point Ayn Rand is making in Anthem with this quote:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. 
Yeah, that's my good buddy C. S. Lewis, and I kept thinking of this quote while I was reading Anthem. Roommate and I use the term "Special Snowflake" occasionally as a shorthand for characters that think they're somehow set apart, or superior, or "special." We definitely used it to refer to the Main Character of Anthem. But really nobody is a "special snowflake" because everyone is.

Really though, which of these two societies is more true to your experience? I don't mean this in a what feels the nicest and happiest kind of way, but actual lived experience. I know we all have days when we feel like we're surrounded by idiots, but I absolutely do not believe for a second that I live in a world where I am not obligated to care about anyone else, and that the most deserving and enlightened are a select group of "special snowflakes." But I do live in a world where everyone I see is complex and nuanced and just as intricate as I am.

I don't believe in ordinary people.

I am not "conquered" by serving and helping others and sometimes putting their needs above my own; in fact to use Michelangelo's metaphor, I believe that those moments of altruism (Rand's least favorite word) are exactly what chip away at the marble and expose the true shape within. We become more ourselves, not less, when united with others.

I know this is a bit long and philosophical and rambly, but what do you think? Do you agree with Ayn Rand? Do you have an ideological nemesis?

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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Monday, September 22, 2014

4 Great Lessons for Writers from Ron Swanson

So my roommate and I just finished catching up on Parks and Rec.

I didn't expect to ever find a show with quite that perfect mixture of sweet and awkward and real and poignant that The Office had, but let me tell you, Parks and Rec came pretty darn close.

As with The Office, this show is all about character. We care about these shows not for the ridiculous and quirky plots, but because the characters are so absolutely engaging. Each character seems to be perfectly balanced between very grounded and recognizable as well as over-the-top quirky and interesting. If we can write characters the way Michael Scott and Leslie Knope were written, we're on a good road.

Perhaps my favorite character (well, one of them...there's just so many good options!) was of course, the oft quoted Ron Swanson. Quick bit of trivia for those who watch the show: did you know that Nick Offerman, who plays Swanson, is actually a carpenter, actually plays the saxaphone, and is actually married in real life to the actress who plays Tammy Two? That just brings me so much weird joy I can hardly stand it.

Anyway. With characters like Ron, we writers could do well to take lessons from both the character and the way he was written. So here are a few lessons I think writers can learn from Ron Swanson:

1. We love all-in characters: I think in any storytelling medium, we love over-the-top obsessed characters. Characters who are so into something we start being reminded of that character whenever we encounter their obsession in real life. Parks and Rec has many examples of this type of character quirk. For example, at our post-church "munch-and-mingle" yesterday we had strawberry shortcake with whipped cream and as I lathered on that yummy whipped cream I couldn't help but think of Leslie Knope. As for Ron Swanson, I think of him whenever I have a burger or a steak. Any big hunk of meat on my plate is a good Swanson moment for me. I smile to myself as I remember the utterly devastated look on his face when he sees that his favorite steak place has been boarded up. I really think it just comes down to loving characters who are absolutely passionate, and when its so specific and visceral, that's something that is very easy to connect with.

2. Your readers will have possibly surprising interests: The Ron Swanson we initially get to know is a burly, mustachioed, meat-loving, wood-carving lug of a man. His interest in meat and woodcarving seems to hit the nail right on the head. Of course someone like him would love meat and chopping down trees. Of course he could finish off an entire office building floor by himself in less time than it would take the entire reconstruction crew.

But then we are introduced to something surprising--Duke Silver, Swanson's swoon-causing saxophone playing alter-ego. This is a more covert but still solid part of Ron's identity. It will be the same with our readers. Writers are often told to focus on the clear interests of your ideal reader, and that is great advice. Approaching Ron Swanson via his interest in meat or carpentry is a good plan. But we might do well to keep in mind that the other, perhaps less obvious interests we may have, may be shared by people who would fit well in our readership. We can use these interests as social media and blog topics, or article ideas, or in a myriad of other ways.

3. Not all your readers will be on the grid: Anybody remember the episode when Ron finds out that advertising companies have some of his information, and he chucks his whole computer in the dumpster? Now that's an extreme example, but there are plenty of people who are best approached somewhere other than cyberspace. Perhaps there is a reader out there ideal for your particular book who gets most of her recommendations and info from friends or newspapers or magazines. We don't often think of those venues in our instant-info-internet era, but they are still very much there, and very valuable. This is why I think it wise for any writer, regardless the genre of your books, to pitch articles to various magazines and submit short stories and poetry to magazines and anthologies. There is still something very powerful about the printed page, and these venues provide a way to reach readers we may not have otherwise. 

4. We love the soft side: One reason I love Ron Swanson so much is that my favorite characters are the ones with a gruff exterior who very rarely reveal their softer side. It just makes me squee with delight, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one. Our hearts are warmed when Ron hints in the best way he knows how the way he truly feels about Leslie. We love when Ron gets embarrassed or even slightly emotional. These show the human side of these types of characters and take them past entertaining into relatable.

I hope this gives you some good ideas and inspiration. What do you think? Can you think of any other lessons we writers can take from the Swanson?

Write on!

Sarah Allen

This Week on Social Media:

For more frequent updates, writing tips, and funnies, follow on FacebookTwitterGoogle+
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  • Blue Mountain Arts: Blue Mountain Arts is interested in reviewing writings that would be appropriate for publication on our greeting cards. We are looking for highly original and creative submissions on love, friendship, family, philosophies, and any other topic that one person might want to share with another. Please note that we do not accept rhyming poetry. Ongoing.
  • The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society: The Rain, Part, & Disaster society anthology is seeking poetry, non-fiction essays, and flash fiction that tackles their October theme: The End. Send your work that thematically, literally, or figuratively includes concepts of endings or the end of something. Due Oct. 15.
  • Coe Review: The Coe Review is a magazine that unleashes refreshing perspectives and unheard voices. We accept all forms of poetry for our fall issue, and, from our hundreds of submissions, we choose those with original forms, styles, messages, and origins. Due Oct. 25.
  • Dark MatterDark Matter publishes literary speculative poetry, flash fiction, short fiction, essays, and musings. We are interested in all things speculative in literature. We are not interested in anything dogmatic or mystical. Use natural metaphor to explore meaning and challenge traditional wisdom. Due Dec. 1

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What's Another Word For Synonym?

One thing I've discovered about working in non-profit is that basically everyone you work with has a great sense of humor. They're all pretty wacky and fun. Since I'm up at the front desk and have several offices off to the side, I am not only the literal water cooler location, I get to see and hear what's going on in the offices around me a lot of times too.

As the resident English major, I occasionally have coworkers ask me to do things like whip up text for a flier or check over their emails for grammar and punctuation before they send them off.

So the other day I was working at my front desk and one of my coworkers calls out from her office to my left:
Her: Hey! Sarah! How do you spell leery?
Me: Like, wary? Or hesitant?
Her: Oh, yeah, that's better. I'll use hesitant.
Her: You're like my personal, uh, synonym box!
Me: ...Thesaurus?
Yeah, that may be the most perfect conversation I've ever had. (Well, second, but that's another story :)

Oh, and no need to look up synonyms for sexy, because you'll get this:

Write on!

Sarah Allen

For more updates, writing tips, and funnies, sign up for the monthly newsletter and get a free copy of 50 Marketing and Networking Tips for Writers!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Top 7 Mistakes That Make Your Writing Look Unprofessional

Writing is subjective enough.

So many important decisions that influence our careers depend on if an assistant got the right coffee that morning, or the timing of editors moving from one house to another, or a magazine editors daughter laughing at your story, or a myriad of other subjective things all out of our control. In many ways we writers are constantly subject to the whims of peoples moods and tastes. An editor or agent looking for say, historical romance, still needs to like our historical romance.

So what can we poor writers do when so much is out of our control? I think one aspect of dealing with that is acknowledging that in many ways this is an endurance game, and that those who stick with it will succeed in the end. However, the other aspect of all this is focusing on the elements we can control.

That means our writing.

When we submit to an agent or editor or anyone for that matter, we may not be able to control what kind of day they're having, or whether they prefer werewolves to vampires, but we can make our submission as clean as possible. We can stand out from many other submissions by sending prose that is polished to a shine and absolutely professional.

And we do that by avoiding several key mistakes that will make our writing look amateurish. Keeping these errors out of our writing can help us convince those agents and editors that we are serious writers, regardless what side of the bed they woke up on that morning.

1. Getting creative with the dialog tags. I'm pretty sure this isn't new to anybody, but it's definitely one of the biggest red flags. I know that as a reader I get a little eye-rolly when people are "bellowing loudly" and "exclaiming vehemently" and "vowing solemnly." Stick with said. Maybe sprinkled with the occasional asked. And if you really, really want to mix it up, maybe use a whisper. But the basic rule of thumb: just plain said.

2. Using exclamation points. In regular prose, the basic rule of thumb is "No Exclamation Points." Just no. Occasionally...strong emphasis on occasionally...they can be useful within dialog. Outside of that, they tend to read as a bit comic kampy. Bang! Womp! Pow! If you're feeling the need to use exclamation points for emphasis, there's a good chance that's a symptom of week prose that might not be bearing the emphasis on its own. Don't get me started on interrobangs...

3. Overuse of adverbs. Before you roll your eyes at yet another someone telling you to avoid adverbs at all costs, just hear me out. I'm not one of those who think of adverbs as pure poison, the smallest dose of which can kill a pet project in its infancy. No, I think every word has its use. Including adverbs. The issue is when you get attached. People often say to avoid too many adverbs because they are too strong, but I think it's just the opposite. Some writers tend to rely on adverbs to show the scene, when really they are some of the weakest descriptors of all, unless used carefully. It's like with exclamation points--mixing it up can lead to stronger writing.

5. Sentence length never varies. Words and sentences have rhythm. Like singing a line of song. Readers get into a set pace. That pace gets old very fast. But if you're conscious of that rhythm, you can take advantage by changing it up. Write short sentences. Then write sentences that wander, that meander, that add to your prose a little bit of syncopation. The change in pace will move your reader forward and keep them interested. That's how you look professional.

6. Switching point-of-view. Otherwise known as head hopping. This can make things very confusing for your reader, and make your writing appear unprofessional. This is when you're in a scene with your point of view character, let's call her Betty, and your secondary character, Martha. If we're in this scene and suddenly we get:
"These croissants are delicious," Martha lied. She knew Betty couldn't cook to save her life.
than suddenly we're in Martha's head, seeing what she thinks. We've hopped from Betty's head to Martha's. Switched point-of-view. An automatic red-flag of unprofessionalism.

7. Using cliche phrases. There's not much to say about this one. And no quicker way, really, to know all the phrases to avoid than just by doing lots and lots of reading. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any phrase you remember hearing before. Saying a character is "cold as ice" doesn't really say anything anymore. Saying a characters eyes are "blue like the ocean" will generally just make your reader roll theirs. Then suddenly all hell will break loose.

I hope these tips help, but first a reminder: writing rules are, to quote the inimitable Captain Barbosa, more actual guidelines. It is important to know the "rules," and follow them probably the vast majority of the time. That is how you make your writing professional. But to make your writing personal--to make it memorable to your readers--add your own style and flavor. Be you. And if that means tweaking a few of these rules every once in a while, then try it out. See if it works.

Write on!

Sarah Allen

This Week on Social Media:

For more frequent updates, writing tips, and funnies, follow on FacebookTwitterGoogle+
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  • Madcap Review: Madcap Review, a semiannual online journal of art and literature, will be accepting submissions for its second issue from September 1st to October 31st.
  • Allegro Poetry Magazine: Allegro Poetry Magazine seeks to publish the best contemporary poetry. Issue 1 will be published at the beginning of October and the editor is looking for poems on the theme “New”. Due Oct. 31.
  • The Great American Lit Mag: Online literary magazine Inaugural Issue! The Great American Lit Mag is looking for fearless and inventive fiction and poetry. We publish quarterly. Due Sep. 30.
  • Howl Magazine: Howl, edited by Deltona High School students, is currently seeking submissions of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art for our brand new online literary magazine. Please feel free to send up to five poems or art and no more than one piece of prose at a time. Year-round.
  • Lunch Ticket Magazine: Literary magazine Lunch Ticket (Antioch University) is accepting submissions for its Winter/Spring 2015 issue. Submissions welcome in the following genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, writing for young people, visual art, and translation. Due Oct. 31.


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