Monthly Archives: January 2015

Writing Prompts: Yea or Nay?

by Lillian Csernica on January 31, 2015

I need your opinions.

See, I’m in this writing group.  It started out with all of us writing nonfiction about events from our own lives.  Somehow over time somebody thought we should add the option of writing prompts.  The prompts usually consist of a word or a phrase.  They often relate to the season or a significant event or holiday.  Along with the writing prompts there has developed a subtle pressure or expectation for people to write to the prompt.

I now find myself annoyed by the writing prompts because instead of mining our own lives for writing material, we seem to be writing essays that fit the current prompt.  We don’t have to write to the prompt.  They’re purely optional.  Unfortunately, due to the group dynamics, most people go along with the prompt.  I am not one of them.  Why has this become such a big deal to me?  Because I would rather hear the stories my fellow group members choose to tell, events important enough to inspire each person write about them, rich with personal meaning and creativity.  If I wanted to write “assignments” I’d go back to school.

So tell me, my fellow bloggers and creative people, what do you think about writing prompts?  Do you use them regularly?  Do you think they’re just part of a writer’s First Aid kit for those times when inspiration runs dry?  Are they a once in a while adventure?

While we’re on the subject of writing prompts, you might enjoy:

40 really awful writing prompts that no writer should use

S****y Writing Prompts

And this marvelous blog post by Jeff Goins:

The Last Writing Prompt You Will Ever Need.

Am I a curmudgeon with no appreciation for a fine tool?  Am I right on the money?  Tell me what you think!



Filed under Blog challenges, Fiction, Goals, Writing

How To Ruin Your Protagonist’s Day

by Lillian Csernica on January 26, 2015 We all know the feeling.  We sit down at our keyboards to do the day’s writing, and there’s nothing in our heads but white noise.  Vague ideas chase each other around.  Nothing ignites.  No conversations start between characters.  Now what? I won NaNoWriMo last year, my first time out.  The secret to my success became one simple question: How can I ruin my hero’s/heroine’s day today?  Good storytelling is made of conflict, and conflict comes from throwing every plausible obstacle into your protagonist’s path.  Sometimes you can get away with some implausible obstacles too, but go easy on those unless you’re sure they don’t damage the rest of the story. Let’s look at my work-in-progress today.  My hero Tendo has just won a game of shogi against his father.  This is the first time Tendo has ever beaten Oto-san at shogi.  All those hours spent playing shogi against himself while he was still in exile during Book One have now brought him a victory he’s longed for ever since Oto-san taught him how to play the game.  They sit back, light their pipes, and engage in some good-natured father-son joking about whether or not my heroine Yuriko has learned to cook. All this is lovely and tranquil, right?  Surely Tendo has earned a few pleasant moments after at least two assassination attempts.  He has indeed earned them, but the key words there are “a few.”  Tendo’s father chooses this moment to raise the issue of the children that Tendo and Yuriko will have.  He’s Japanese, she’s British by birth.  That means the children will be “kon ketsu” or, to use the modern term, hapa.  The children will be half-breeds.  To a samurai, this is intolerable.  Tendo’s father tells him that when Tendo’s oldest sister marries, Tendo’s father will adopt her husband as his heir.

I have just disinherited my hero.  Because he married Yuriko, a gaijin, and she will be the mother of his children, Tendo will lose his place as eldest son and heir to the Tendo family line.  In the world of the samurai, I have just ripped away the foundations of Tendo’s identity and sense of self.  There is nothing he can do but bow his head respectfully and leave the room.  Now that he feels cut off from his family, the only person Tendo can go to is Yuriko herself.  This leads to Tendo learning what happened in an earlier scene when Yuriko and Tendo’s mother faced off over tea with both of Tendo’s sisters on hand to watch the genteel combat.

Photo credit: Okinawa Soba

I ruined Yuriko’s day, and then I ruined Tendo’s day.  This is a romance novel, so the pain they’re both feeling will draw them closer together, right up to the moment where it drives them apart again. And people think writing romance novels is easy.

What does your protagonist want most?  At that moment?  In the big picture?  Let him or her think he or she has finally gotten it, then yank the rug out and turn the world upside down.  Here’s another secret to this whole process.  If you find yourself resisting the urge to do something really terrible to your protagonist, that means you’re on the right track.  I love my characters.  I don’t want to hurt them or make their lives any worse.  That’s the Reader in me talking.  The Writer in me has to rain down hell and damnation at every turn to keep Readers reading and to show my protagonists are determined to win no matter what. Keep the pressure on, right up to that moment when your protagonist has to risk it all in the climactic moment of the story.  Go big or go home, right?


Filed under fantasy, Fiction, Goals, history, Japan, love, marriage, romance, Self-image, Writing

40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally

This is a hoot. Enjoy!

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Filed under Uncategorized

Please Fence Me In

by Lillian Csernica on January 20, 2015


My adventures in mental health care have taught me the importance of having boundaries and maintaining them.  Some people have a hard time establishing their own boundaries for themselves, the limits they place on their own behavior toward other people.  Some people know what their own boundaries are and where they lie.  The trouble they have comes in maintaining those boundaries in the face of behavior from people who can’t recognize and/or do not respect those boundaries.  A tall redwood fence standing on the property line establishes a very definite boundary.  When it comes to the more intangible or figurative boundaries of etiquette, personal space, trigger subjects, and more serious issues, it can be much more difficult to make that fence line clear.  Some boundary issues fall under the heading of “unwritten rules.”  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been trying to find a copy of The Book of Unwritten Rules ever since I started kindergarten.

The Japanese have two concepts that are very useful in establishing boundaries between people. These concepts are uchi and soto.

Uchi means inside.  Uchi means Us.  Our family, our house, our team, our business, our class, our club, our circle of friends.

Soto means outside.  Soto means Them.  Anybody and everybody who is not part of uchi is by definition soto.  Outside.  Outsiders.  Not us.  This does not mean such people are enemies.  It just means they are not part of the intimate grouping of relationships that make up the family, team, class, etc.

Uchi People are treated with a degree of familiarity and intimacy shown to no one else.  In Japan, everyone in the same household refers to each other by the form of address used by the youngest member of the household.  Mom is called “Okaa-san” by everybody, even Dad.  Dad is referred to as “Oto-san,” even by Grandma.  The culture of Japan is very good as an example of why boundaries are so essential.  Even among Uchi People, in fact especially among Uchi People, there are important limits.  For centuries the houses in Japan have been built of wood and paper.  When Oto-san and Okaa-san are sleeping the room right next to the room where their eldest son and his wife sleep, people get very good at not hearing what they’re not supposed to hear.

Soto People can ignore each other on the crowded train, for example, and remain isolated in their individual walls of privacy.  Common courtesy does come into play, because the Japanese are nothing if not polite.

Boundaries give rise to expectations about other people’s behavior.  Little kids are taught the basic rule of polite social interaction: Keep Your Hands To Yourself.  At least one hopes they’re taught that by responsible parents who want to pass on their own good manners.  We all know children and indeed adults who can’t seem to get the hang of keeping their hands to themselves.  They have to be reminded again and again.  In the case of some adults, if those reminders don’t work, it’s time to call the law enforcement officials.

Another basic lesson is Clean Up After Yourself.  I have a bad habit of putting my hand wash in to soak and then forgetting it’s there.  I use a plastic wash tub that I set in the bath tub.  There have been times when my sister has wanted to take a shower and my wash is still sitting there.  That’s just thoughtless on my part, so I try harder to make myself use a timer.  The idea of taking care of one’s own mess may begin with something as simple as the dinner dishes, but it can extend to something as complicated as one’s own emotional problems.  A friend of mine has gotten herself roped into being used as a cheap therapist by someone we both know.  Me, I think that someone just wants to be a Drama Queen and needs an audience.  Maybe I’m wrong.  My friend is a grown-up, so if she chooses to put up with this, that’s her privilege.  If she doesn’t want to go on putting up with it, she’s going to have a hard time establishing the boundary and making the Drama Queen respect it.  The bottom line here is simple: don’t expect other people to clean up your mess.  You made it, you deal with it.  (When it comes to people who do need professional medical or therapeutic assistance with their psychological difficulties, I fully support that.  I should.  I’m one of them.)

Boundaries are tricky because they can be flexible depending on the person and the circumstance.  I hate being interrupted while I’m writing.  The adults in the house know this.  At the same time, if Michael or John needs me for any reason, I will stop what I’m doing and go see what’s needed.  I’m not at all interested in hearing some personal saga from a sales clerk, but I will put up with listening to my mother tell me the ongoing plot of her favorite TV show.  Context is everything.  Personal context, social context, family context.  Age, gender, race, educational, and financial contexts.  They are all part of the warp and weft of the social fabric.  We make intuitive choices moment by moment, adjusting up and down the scale of intimacy and formality.

The expression “mending fences” means to repair a friendship.  To me this indicates the fences were broken somehow.  The boundaries were crossed.  By re-establishing those boundaries and rebuilding those fences, the relationship is put back on course in a healthy, clear, and respectful direction.  Sounds like a good policy to me!



Filed under Depression, Family, Goals, Japan, marriage, Self-image, Special needs, Writing

Happy News!

by Lillian Csernica on January 15, 2015



Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, sentient beings everywhere, I am very pleased to announce that I have joined the staff of HorrorAddicts.Net as the blog editor.  Many thanks to Emerian Rich, creator and Horror Hostess of the site.


I made my first professional fiction sales in the world of horror, so I’m looking forward to spending more time in the realm I’ve enjoyed so much since I was a kid.  My grandfather helped build the laboratory set for the original Frankenstein movie that starred Boris Karloff.

I loved “Seymour’s Creature Feature” when I was little, and then “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.”  On the weekends I’d stay up late watching the horror movies on Channel 13.

I’m particularly fond of ghost stories and collect anthologies that feature turn of the century writers such as M.R. James, Elizabeth Bowen, A.M. Burrage, and Lady Cynthia Asquith.  My favorite horror writers of today include Don Webb, Ennis Drake, Catherine MacLeod,  and P.N. Elrod, along with masters of the genre such as Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, and Charlotte Riddell.

HorrorAddicts.Net offers podcasts, contests, articles and reviews.  To all you horror addicts out there, come on over and pay us a visit!


Filed under fantasy, Fiction, Goals, Halloween, Horror, Writing

Guest Blog: Broken Glass by Melanie Spiller

by Lillian Csernica on January 11, 2015

I am very happy to present to you a guest blog by the multi-talented Melanie Spiller, a lady of great inner strength and a very big heart.  Please visit Melanie here.

Broken Glass

About a month or so ago, my dear friend Mindy came over for dinner. I served the meal in some heavy ceramic bowls that she admired and she asked where I’d gotten them. When I told her that I’d had them for many years, she said “the glass is already broken.”

I was mystified. She explained that in her household, dishes and such tended to break because so many people came trooping through, so she was always on patrol for replacements. She went on to talk about the Buddhist koan “the glass is already broken.” She and I agreed that it seemed to mean that no matter how much sentiment, nostalgia, or monetary value we attribute to things, one day, they will break or otherwise no longer be ours. In the spirit of Buddhist non-ownership and impermanence, it is wise to think of the glass/bowl/cup as already broken.
I did a little thinking about it in the next few days (Mindy is very wise, and she is always saying things that make me think for a few days), and then I forgot about it.

Then, I went to this little meditation group that meets in my neighborhood, and the evening’s koan was “the glass is already broken.” I’d already gone down this path a little ways, so I was delighted to meet my old friend in this way. Again, I let it resonate for a day or two (and I ate out of one of those bowls), and then it slipped out of my head.

Last Monday, I sat next to a stranger on a plane. We talked about our jobs, traveling, being vegetarians, his wife’s religious belief in the Great Spaghetti Monster, and we enjoyed a nice little conversation. And then, out of the blue, he said “the glass is already broken.”

The plane could have dropped out of the sky in that moment and I wouldn’t have noticed.

I had thought that the koan was about the intemperance of things, about falsely associating things with meaning. I had thought that I’d understood what it was supposed to teach me.

Apparently not.

In the last week or four, I’ve been feeling general dissatisfaction about some social commitments, some musical endeavors, and about my job. Oh, none of it was new dissatisfaction; it just seemed all to be boiling unpleasantly at the same moment. And in truth, none of those things are incredibly unsatisfying. They’re just going through a cycle of unpleasantness on their ways to being pleasant again.

But this expression, the koan “the glass is already broken” coming out of this unexpected mouth, made me realize that I’d been thinking in terms of physical things themselves, and not really about my own attitude toward them. For me, now anyway, this koan is about false expectations.

I expect to always enjoy my musical endeavors, my social engagements, and because it has been true in the past, I even expect to enjoy my job. But really, life is about change, not about stasis. We grow up, we grow old, pets, people, and plants die, people move away, move up, move on. There is no way to stop any of that, and there’s really no excuse for wanting to stop it.

My job, my social commitments, my musical endeavors—all of these add color to my life. It’s really not reasonable of me to expect them to add meaning. Sometimes they do, and for those times, I am grateful. When they don’t, though, there’s no sense griping about it. Change seems to be the only permanent thing, after all.

And someday, whether I own them or not, those bowls will break.

Thank you, Melanie!


Filed under charity, Food, Goals, Self-image

Frustration Station

By Lillian Csernica on January 8, 2015

Winter break is over.  School is back in session.  This means the temporary ceasefire is over and we’re back in the trenches for the Homework War.

I love my sons.  To me, John and Michael are the two most important people on the entire planet.  There are many joyful moments with my boys, but there is also a really staggering amount of frustration.

John is a sophomore in high school now.  Even with the adjustments made for his autism, the assignments are getting more complicated and more difficult.  Today’s Video Production homework included a handout that explains the five types of documentary film making.  I read it over.  No wonder John tried to say he didn’t have any homework.  Each of the five types is explained in a paragraph where at least half of the words must be translated from the abstract into the concrete so John has any hope of really understanding what they mean.  Imagine having to break down the meanings on seventy different words, with repeated efforts until the meaning of each word is grasped.  Now imagine doing that five times in a row.  And that’s if everything goes smoothly.

Again and again John kept rejecting my explanations of the assignment.  It didn’t seem to matter to him that he’s part of a team and everybody has to make his or her contribution for the group project to turn out well.  John loves superheroes.  Even my explanation about how Superboy or Robin would never let his teammates down had no visible effect.  John just kept refusing to do the assignment, repeating over and over:

It’s too hard.

I can’t understand these words.

My mind is too mixed up.

My mind won’t let me do this.

At times like this I ask myself, how much of John’s resistance is his processing disorder, and how much is simple teenage stubbornness about doing homework?  I don’t know.  I can’t tell.  I have no idea if there is a way to make the distinction.  And so I feel terrible frustration and heartbreaking sorrow for my son.

Does he really believe these things he’s saying?  Does he really see himself that way?  I can’t ask, because I do know that John is clever enough to take any road available out of a task he wants to avoid.  One of the first things I teach a new aide is to watch out for John’s sneaky streak.   He will play Mom off Dad until he gets the answer he wants.  We all have to talk to each other to make sure John isn’t trying to get away with something.  This leads to even more frustration because running all over the house double-checking with each other is tiresome.

It gets to a point where I have to treat the homework issue as a discipline problem and start taking away privileges such as computer time.  Like most boys his age, John loves his electronics, so this is usually effective.  Today, however, John got to the point of being in tears over his frustration with the assignment.  What am I supposed to do?  Punish my ASD child for being the way he is, something over which he has very little control?  A large part of me cries out against that injustice, and yet I know I have to hold the line and get John to do his homework.  If I don’t, the problem will snowball into notes from the teacher and meetings with the caseworker and John being tagged with even more stigma over his diagnosis.

I hate this.  I hate watching my son suffer.  I hate being the cause of any further suffering, especially when I don’t know whether or not that’s what I’m doing to him.

Every single day is a battle.  Please, pray for John, for Michael, for me and our whole family.  Thank you.


Filed under autism, Depression, Family, Goals, love, Self-image, Special needs, Writing