Episode 57: Free Plot Ideas to Run With

In a previous post, I pointed to ways that writers could generate plot ideas. Well, let’s go to the next step. Below you’ll find a quick synopsis of several plot ideas that I’ve tossed around over the years. Most of these are basic, but my hope is that they generate new writing projects for you.

  1. The protagonist gets thrown into a world that is completely unfamiliar and must deal with the change (specifics: forced to return to a small town, stuck in the wilderness, isolated in a spacecraft/biosphere/building/submarine, running a new business for a family member, mistaken for someone else, transported to a different time/world, struck by a debilitating illness/injury, surviving a nearly earth-destroying catastrophe alone or with a few survivors).
  2. The protagonist must track down a valuable item (specifics: uncovering a lost secret, finding a hidden treasure, discovering a cure, saving a kidnapped family member/friend/love interest, participating in a Carmen-Sandiego style romp around the world to locate various items, the seven pieces of whatever must be found to save the world).
  3. The protagonist must stop something from happening (specifics: his/her own death, world-ending catastrophe, antagonist bent on forcing an agenda, personal tragedy, loved one’s death, losing love interest, forest or other habitat from being destroyed, an innocent person from going to jail/being put to death, a vehicle crashing and killing lots of people, being fired, a terrorist attack, deaths of fellow soldiers/unit/special team).
  4. The protagonist must make something happen (specifics: put a perpetrator behind bars, complete a complex project before time runs out, deliver an important cure/antidote/supply, reach a specific destination, raise sufficient money/support, finding a love interest within a specified time limit, uniting divided factions).
  5. Protagonist must solve a complicated problem (specifics: solve a murder or other criminal mystery, train for and attempt a sporting or academic goal, compete in a fantasy/sporting/academic tournament, navigate a fantasy academy, achieve a career goal, survive summer camp, attract a seemingly unattainable love interest).
  6. Protagonist must deal with personal turmoil, life changes, or other challenges (specifics: addictions, marital/relationship strife, religious/spiritual journey, job search, world travels, family history, long lost love interest returning, end of high school/college, end of summer camp, start/end of military duty).
  7. Protagonist must defeat something (specifics: social injustice, corporate corruption, political corruption, legal corruption, church corruption, man-eating lizards, robots from Timbork, aliens from Vega, antiquated social customs, dragons, ocelots, an army of mercenaries, bureaucracy, a city ordinance, poachers, a mad librarian).

And, if all else fails, you could simply throw in some zombies.

Leave any plot ideas you’re willing to share in the comments.

Tuesday Terminology: Malapropism

There’s great humor in subtlety. A well placed, unassuming malapropism, for example, can make your writing seem quite witty without being obvious.

What is malapropism? Let’s do some hands-on learning. Here’s a recent example I came across:

I think that cheeseburger really curved his appetite.

The first thing I want to point out is that there was not the least bit of irony on the speaker’s part, and that’s important. A malapropism only happens when the person/character making the statement unintentionally uses an incorrect word or phrase that sounds similar to the correct one. In this example, the correct idiom is “curbed his appetite.”

The only real difference between a pun and a malapropism is intent. Puns are on purpose; malapropisms aren’t. Letting the audience “in” on the joke is the tricky part, which means that you have to let them know that the mistake was unintentional without muting the impact of the humor.

Here are some other fun malapropisms:

  • The ocean is infatuated with sharks.
  • That’s as oblivious as the nose on your face.
  • He can catch the football with either hand. He’s amphibious. [Real color commentary during a nationally broadcasted football game.]
  • In the South, you can expect the air to be hot with high humility.
  • For all intensive purposes, this post is finished.

Two Dots: When and How to Use Colons

The colon in grammar serves one major purpose: it introduces a list or an explanation (it’s also useful in time). If you see the two dots, you know what comes after is adding further information to what came before.

Lists

Let’s get formal for a moment. If you use a colon to introduce a list, you should have some word or words that let the reader know a list is coming (e.g., “the following,” “as follows”).

When I went camping, I took the following: DVD player, soap, and SPAM.

However, I’ve noticed a trend toward using colons after the verb.

When I went camping, I took: DVD player, soap, and SPAM.

Even though it seems less formal, this is grammatically incorrect because what precedes the colon must be a complete sentence in and of itself. That is, what comes after the colon is only supposed to add to a complete thought; it’s not supposed to complete it. This rule may one day change, but for now, that’s the expectation.

Formal Quotes

Colons also introduce formal quotes, but this is often relegated to more academic settings. In most of your writing, you will rarely use them this way. If you did, it would look something like this:

My uncle used to love this saying for country wisdom: “A ‘coon in the country is better than an alligator in a ship.” I still have no idea what he meant.

Give Me Detail

Finally, a colon can introduce a more thorough explanation of something.

There are two things that I know: I do not like raw fish, and I have a cramp in my foot.

There’s never been a better time to watch the meteor shower: The night sky is perfectly clear.

You could easily have put a semicolon or a period in either of those instead of a colon and not changed the meaning, but a colon keeps the two sentences more tightly bound.

Style Issues

Different style guides suggest different rules as to capitalization. After a colon, you should always capitalize formal quotes and explanations of more than one sentence. However, do not capitalize a list that follows a colon unless the list consists of complete sentences.

The gray area involves what to do with explanations that follow a colon and are not complete sentences. Some style guides say capitalize no matter what; some say that whatever you do, just be consistent. I won’t render judgment, but I will say that capitalizing is more often correct.

Other Uses

  • to set off hours from minutes and minutes from seconds (3:10:45 PM)
  • to connect titles to subtitles (as in this post)
  • to show certain types of classification (e.g., chapter:verse, volume:page, mission: impossible)
  • to set off a greeting (e.g., Dear Gertrude:)

Weekend Website: The Book Seer

The Book Seer is a site that does one thing, and that’s okay. When you load the page, you’re given a simple form that asks you to name the last book you read and the author. Type those in, press enter, and you’re given a list of recommendations about which book to read next from Amazon, BookArmy, and LibraryThing.

book-seer

After that, you can click on one to purchase the title (goes to the Amazon UK site oddly), share your recommendations, or head to the library. When I tested the site, I found the results to be a bit limited in scope—mainly sticking with the same author. But, in all fairness, the genres I chose are rather narrow.

Website: The Book Seer

Episode 56: What Editors Do All Day

Editor is a title that implies a wide range of possible tasks—housed conveniently under the idea of “fixing what’s broke.” This may involve anything from running for coffee to interviewing a SME (subject matter expert, but it’s so much more fun to say by the abbreviation: “smee”).

Since there’s such a wide array of tasks, what I present first is simply a random assignment (random = assignment that looks most impressive in a list). Your mileage may vary.

  • 9:05 AM: Receive SOS email about an article that needs to be proofed and posted. Down coffee.
  • 9:06 AM: Scan article for main ideas. Decide if the format works (structure, coverage). If the format doesn’t work, I may send the article back to the writer for changes.
  • 9:10 AM: Research claims or unfamiliar aspects of the topic. For this, I can often find the info through a Google search or other reference materials that I keep at my desk. If that fails, I call on those with letters after their names or other knowledgeable sources. Hurried work like this means that there’s no time to hit the books myself.
  • 9:17 AM: Glance at the bottom of empty coffee cup and hope it spontaneously refills itself.
  • 9:24 AM: Read the article again for flow and begin coding it for the Internet. At this point, I make comments that I’ll send with the article to the senior editor, who will then present approved changes to the writer. These comments are usually disagreements, suggested rewrites, and things that I find hilarious (just being honest).
  • 9:58 AM: Read the article one last time to check for spelling mistakes, grammar issues, or layout problems.
  • 10:18 AM: Send the article to the senior editor and move on to regularly scheduled programming.

If the assignment is not rushed, I usually space out the second and third readings by hours or days so that I come at it fresh. But sometimes all those red exclamation points on my emails tell me that I’ll have to compress my normal routine.

Beyond this sample assignment (and the complications I left out, including a “more final” version of the article coming after I’ve done my edits), some of the tasks that an editor might perform during the day are as follows:

  • Coordinating copy with a writer, a marketing firm, and management to meet various requirements and expectations about the content, the branding, and the audience
  • Answering or writing queries about copyright information and redistribution
  • Having a serious, ten-minute discussion about a comma rule like some people would discuss stocks
  • Begging and bartering with graphic designers and programmers for help on a potential campaign
  • Being an alpha tester for a new website or navigation scheme in exchange for help from said programmers
  • Measuring the success of content through analytics (not normally an editorial job, but a good skill to have)

And that’s it for my posts about editorial responsibilities. We’ll return to writing tips next week.

A Mixed Bag of Common Errors

As I work with written content, I often stumble over the same types of errors from multiple writers. Perhaps I simply notice these more because they’re somewhat akin to needles scraping glass when I see them (we all have our nerdy things), and this blog is my quest to stamp them out.

  • Allot/a lot: If you have a large quantity of something, you have a lot of it. The a cannot be combined with the lot because it’s an article (a, an, the) and not a prefix here. However, a can be a prefix as it is with allot, which means “to assign a share or portion.” Personally, I recommend not using a lot a lot in your writing, since the phrase is too general to mean much of anything.
  • Lightning/lightening: If you mean the electric discharge that lights up the sky and is followed by a loud boom of thunder, then use lightning (e.g., the storm filled the night with lightning). If you mean that the sky (or anything dark) is becoming brighter or less dark, then use lightening (e.g., maybe you should try lightening up the dark blue in your painting).
  • There/their/they’re: We can all slip up with these homophones on occasion (I confess that I do). There is mostly used to show a place (e.g., we went there) or a relation (e.g., there are three potatoes in my sock). Their shows ownership by a third-person group (e.g., I found their potatoes in my sock). And they’re means “they are” (e.g., they’re getting on my nerves with the potato thing).
  • To/too: This one is easy to overlook. Just make sure that if you mean “also” or “excessive,” you use too (e.g., he took too many cookies, too). The trickier use is when you want to emphasize your point or respond to a claim (e.g., you did too put mashed potatoes in Mrs. Humperdink’s chair).
  • Breath/breathe: You can thank the meandering history of the English language for this, but a few verbs need an e on the end to work (soothe is another). With breathe (to inhale and exhale), the confusing part is that the noun (that thing you inhale or exhale) doesn’t have an e. To add to the confusion, the two often appear close together: Breathe in. Now, hold your breath for ten seconds. Breathe out.

I’ll have more on common errors later.

As always, feel free to ask any grammar or writing questions you have.

Weekend Website: WordSift

tc_logoFrom time to time, I visit sites that, while somewhat useful, are technically time-wasters for writers—toys that take away from time that could have been spent writing. Sometimes, though, those sites can actually spark ideas.

WordSift fits that description. At its core, the site is really just a diversion: you copy some text into the box, hit the “Sift” button, and you’re presented with a page of quirky info about your writing. There’s a tag cloud, a visual thesaurus (a map of your words and related words), and associated images. Useful? Maybe. Fun? Can be.

word-sift-screen

More than anything, the site can actually help you find words you overuse and better words to convey your meaning (that’s my excuse, anyway). Go ahead and slap in some text—see how strangely addictive it is to visually trace synonyms.

Site: WordSift