Thursday, November 29, 2007

Story Starter Challenge #1

I found this old hollow tree a few weeks ago. It has the "look" of story all about it— and I'm offering that story to you. Tell me about this tree. What is its story? Does something live in it— or someone? Is something hidden in it? Where is the tree? When is it (past, present, future)? Give us a story! It can be as long or as short as you like. When you're done, share it with your friends. You can also share it here; just post it in the comments or send me an e-mail. If I like it (and it meets the family-friendly nature of this site), I'll add it to the blog under your by-line.

--- Howard Shirley

(Photo ©2007 by Howard Shirley)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Two Roads Diverged into a Yellow Wood...

Writing, like life, is about making choices. Where will the characters go? What will they say? What will they do? As a writer, you make the choice. Each choice opens up more choices, as each "way leads on to way." Like Robert Frost's poem, it's up to you whether you take the well-traveled route or "the one less traveled—" or crash into the wood of story itself and make your own path, a new path. It won't be easy; trailblazing never is. But at the end you will have created something new, a path that others will want to follow, perhaps to a destination no one has ever seen. So choose your path, and each path after, always striving to find the new way, the way that leads to something fresh, something magical, something unexpected— and that, indeed, will "make all the difference."

--- Howard Shirley

(Photo ©2007 by Howard Shirley)

Monday, November 19, 2007

You Never Know What Will Land in Your Backyard


The sound filtered through my study window and simmered in my brain. Sounds like... gas escaping... my brain finally told me. GAS ESCAPING!!! NOT AGAIN!!! (the last bit because the previous Saturday workers installing a sprinkler system for our neighbor struck the gas line, causing all sorts of excitement). I rushed out the front door to see what new disaster had come.

The sound was indeed of gas rushing (score 1 for my brain), but not from a new leak. The sound came from the propane burner of a hot air balloon. It drifted down our street, just over housetop level, bringing with it excitement of its own. Kids and adults ran down the street chasing it; cars pulled into our neighborhood. One dad hopped out of an SUV with his teenage daughters and said to me, "I'm forty-one, and I'm more excited than they are!"

Hey, I'm forty-two, and I'm with you, buddy!

The balloon passed over a neighbor's house with about ten feet to spare, and then settled gently into the field that backs up to our houses. We were gathered around like villagers in 17th century France, chattering about the visitor from the skies. (Fortunately for the passengers, we opted not to bring pitchforks to slay the monster.) The operators allowed the balloon to deflate, jumping up and down on the bag to force the remaining air out, to the cheers of gathered boys and adults. In a short while it was packed, loaded in the trailer of a chase vehicle, and we were all left with a story to share with each other.

And now I have shared that story with you!

The moral? Keep your ears and eyes open: you never know what story my sail gently down and land in your own backyard.

--- Howard Shirley

STORY CHALLENGE: Imagine a balloon lands in your backyard. Where did it come from? Who is riding in it? Why are they there? And What will happen next?!?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fine Young Writers

One purpose of this blog is to share not only my experiences as a writer, but the experiences of other writers I encounter— and to encourage you to be a writer as well. So I'd like to begin by sharing a recent experience I had with a group of gifted young writers who attended one of my workshops.

The workshop was hosted by the Franklin Public Library in my hometown of Franklin, TN (you can find the library here ), at the request of their excellent YA librarian, Phillip McAndrew. As with many writers, there's always the fear that you will enter the library and find yourself on the set of a new movie titled What If They Gave a Workshop and Nobody Came? It's irrational (well, not completely), but it's there.

Fortunately, on this day my fears were completely unfounded. Within minutes of my arrival, the room filled up with fifteen young writers (and one brave adult). The paper and pencils were passed around, I chatted about myself, writing, and other odd bits, and then we got down to business.

I call my workshop "Hidden Treasures," because it's all about discovering that almost anything can hide a hidden treasure— the hidden treasure that we call "story." We began by pulling an object from my Hidden Treasures bag— in this case, a bracelet— and asking questions about that object. What is it? What is its purpose? Is it what it is, or what it represents? (For example, is a toy soldier a toy soldier, or does it represent a real soldier?) Who has the object? How did they get it? Why do they have it? Do they want it?
The questions continue, going into when, where, how and why, but this should give you the idea. The purpose is to discover the story hidden in the object. (And the great thing is, the story can change for the same object, just by changing the answers.)

After brainstorming together, each young writer got the chance to pull their own object out of the bag— and a mixed bag of objects it was— and craft their own story starters by asking questions about their finds.

(As an aside, it was an absolute delight to see fifteen heads bowed down over a table, with the only sound in the room being the scratching of pencils on paper. For a moment, I thought I was giving a standardized test; only it was a lot more fun, and nobody could get a wrong answer.)

Fifteen minutes later we shared a few of our story ideas— and what terrific story ideas there were! An abstract chess piece became a huge pillar in a city built by dragons; an earring became the symbol of a corrupt royal house in a vast empire; a bracelet became the key to a secret code, kept by a girl who must spy on her own husband. I can't share all the stories with you (after all, they're not my stories to tell!), but I think and hope that someday these young writers will do so.

Why not try the experiment yourself? Pick an object, or even an idea, and start asking questions. You may stumble upon a treasure trove you never knew you had.

--- Howard Shirley

P.S. If you'd like for me to bring the Hidden Treasures workshop to your library, school or writing group, just contact me through my web site:

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Very Good Place to Start.

Mark Twain once said of writing, "Start at the beginning, write until you come to the end, then stop."*
It's hard to argue with anything said by Mark Twain. (About writing at least. What he said about investments in typesetting machines is another issue.) So I'll go with Mr. Twain's advice.

This is the beginning of my blog. Here I will write about my books, my workshops, others' books, others' workshops, writing, things happening in life, a game or two, and whatever strikes my fancy. Here, if you wish, you can read about those things.

Why should you read all this? Because (I hope) you will find it interesting, entertaining, and just maybe helpful.

If you've come here from my website (, then you know a little about me. But if you've come here from somewhere else, I'll start with a brief bio.

I am a writer. I write novels, stories, scripts, articles, book reviews and other assorted items, all of which you can learn about at my website (see the link above). This blog is mostly about my work writing for children and young adults— though, quite honestly, I write my books for everyone. If you like a good story and appreciate a well-told tale, I believe you will like my books, whether you are nine, nineteen, or ninety.

Currently one of my books is available— Acts for God: 38 Dramatic Sketches for Contemporary Services, published in 2005 by Meriwether Publishing. Think "Saturday Night Live" with a family-friendly flair. (If you're old enough to remember Isaac Air Freight, you'll understand what I mean. If you're not, well, you'll just have to read it.)

The Weaver of Atreia is my latest novel, a young adult fantasy about a failed apprentice turned soldier, an assassin's plot and a guild of spies. It's not in print yet, but I am delighted to say that editors have requested it, so cross your fingers, say a prayer, and hope for good news very soon. And if you want to know a little more about The Weaver of Atreia, or any of my books, just visit my website.

So now you know a little about me and why I'm writing this.

It's time to follow the last part of Mr. Twain's advice. I'll do so with another pithy quote. Winston Churchill once said, not of writing, "This is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning."*

And so is this.

--- Howard Shirley

*Both quotes are paraphrased from my memory, so don't expect them to be correct. And yes, the last is about the Battle of Britain, not writing.