Writerly things: Take the train!

Train travel is still a viable and reliable transportation system in the United States, despite the popularity of planes or cars.  Christina Vuono, a 30 year old speech language pathologist from Philadelphia, PA, travels by train to Atlanta, GA, every year.  Amtrak is her preferred and trusted carrier.

“I like it. Now that I’ve tried a sleeper car I never want to go back. It takes longer but the conductors are usually friendly and helpful,” said Vuono. For her, it’s something of a different experience than that of planes and busy highways.  “I like seeing the countryside. I find it relaxing. I can read or do work.”

That change in experience is exactly what Amtrak is hoping will attract more customers and travelers over the long run.  Vuono, like many other customers, is a hobby-writer with a twitter account, and that combination is good for business. In the new age of social media and instantaneous word-of-mouth recommendations, the positive experience outlined in a single 120 character tweet from a happy traveler can encourage new ticket purchases.

This year, thanks to a chance twitter conversation with a writer who later took the trial pilot run, Amtrak rolled out plans for the Amtrak Residency program for writers.  The program is now a reality and a limited number of 24 passes will be awarded by application process over the next year.  The Amtrak Residency program will allow selected writers to take a round-trip, 2 to 5 day tour of the country on any of their long-distance rail routes in a sleeper car with a desk to help encourage writers’ creativity.

The application asks why a writer wants to take the residency program, requests a writing sample, and a writer’s twitter handle as confirmation of their intent as a “creative professional.” Anyone can apply at no cost.  There is no requirement that a writer be published, or even write a review of their experience if selected.  The applications are reviewed by a panel to determine approval for the residency program.

More information, and the application, can be found at Amtrak’s blog. http://blog.amtrak.com/amtrakresidency/

What would you write if you had a week on a train?  The next Great American Novel? A news piece on the changing historical/political landscape? A kid’s story about trains? Or a sci-fi novel about space travel?


Writerly things… like Characters

Ah, characters. The good guys. The bad guys. The goofy sidekicks. The random passerby in the background. These are the bread and butter of the storyworld, the main staple that feeds the craft. They don’t always have to be human in some medium to still get the stories across and there can be stories without characters.  It’s not recommended, though, because the audience wants to know who to cheer for. For that you need characters to choose from.

Besides, creating characters is the fun part! What makes them unique?  What makes them a product of your imagination?  Even characters who are based on “real life” individuals have to be run through the imagination of the writer before they can be put on the page.  There’s always details that just won’t fit with the story the author wants to tell, from dialogue between characters to hair color to the preferred brand of booze they have while lamenting their broken homes. That’s all stuff the writer gets to make up and build stories around.

Part of that is looking at the way real people actually work.  It does no good to tell a story where everything is perfect and no one screws up because everyone is flawless.  The audience starts to feel a bit like they’ve just stepped in amongst the Stepford Wives Club and they immediately want to leave; there’s no one they know there, there’s no one they recognize or identify with.  The story can be lost because the audience looses interest.

The other problem point to the perfect-character is that a good story needs tension and perfection is the opposite of tension.  The Perfect World is the world where no one wants anything.  Tension is the result of a character wanting or needing something that they can’t easily obtain, there’s a conflict because something is in their way.  This is also something we as writers can borrow from “real life” in the creation of our characters.  We can build this conflict into the character’s past and we can use that to steer the plot.

Character and plot are actually related more than we immediately notice as an audience; what makes a character unique is that they can’t be plug-and-play inserted into any story, we have to give them their story for this reason.  What do they want? How would they respond to a given situation?  Their past experiences and their present needs steer the answer to those questions and the answers to those questions should ultimately show how the plot unfolds. A writer has to dabble in a little psychology to play in creating characters and explore the idea of “universal needs” and how those impact people in their day to day lives when they go unfulfilled.

Blogger and counselor Gina Senarighi compiled a useful list of examples of Unmet Universal Needs that impact how people communicate with each other in the real world. (It’s an interesting article, too, so check it out!) The list applies just as well to the fictional world.

Image copyright Gina Senarighi.

Just as an exercise, go through this list of “Unmet Universal Needs” and see what kind of character traits jump out at you.  What can you build from them? A whole novel? A short story? Or just an interesting background/support character?  Every character you put on the page deserves the same amount of attention in their creation, because you never know if they’ll come in handy later while you’re writing!