Friday, June 29, 2012

7 Things I've Learned About Storytelling

Below is an updated excerpt from a Q & A with a fellow writer who was looking to be inspired and to learn knew things for his own book. This was originally posted in April 2008; it came to mind again as I prepared for a presentation to a writers group. Sometimes, I need to be reminded of my own words, or take a refresher course in the basics of writing. Perhaps the lessons listed below might be of help to other writers, as well.
Q) What useful things have you learned about creative writing in general from writing a novel?

Though I've learned much from writing this book, I've also gleaned much from other sources. Below are a few things I've gathered along the journey.

I copyedited manuscripts for a publisher. My job was to find spelling, punctuation, usage, and subject/verb agreement errors--all the boring stuff--but I also found paragraphs that should be rearranged, or sentences that were awkwardly structured or misplaced. Once phrases or entire sentences were given new homes, the writing flowed. It read well.

LESSON ONE: The boring stuff matters. Who cares how creative your stories are if you can't tell them coherently?

I also edit manuscripts writers are preparing to send to agents or editors. Some writers have already been published, but for most this is their first manuscript to be sent out into the world. They want "the works" when it comes to editing/critiquing. From reading these manuscripts, I've often learned what not to do in my own writing.

If spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, dialogue, description, or some other basic element of storytelling makes you nervous, consult other writers, ask editors, or find resource materials (style books, online dictionaries, etc.).

LESSON TWO: Read someone else's manuscript. Sometimes we are blind to our own words, and need the mirror of others to see our mistakes.

LESSON THREE: The adage "show, don't tell" is valid. Sometimes, we need to tell the reader some information because we need to condense time or space on the page, and move on to the next scene. However, those times should be rare. Never miss an opportunity to dramatize the story, make it come to life. Don't report dialogue; let us hear it. Don't tell us how characters feel; show emotion in their actions, words, expressions, silences.

For more along this line, check out Rebecca Miller's blog for a discussion of Scene vs. Narrative.

LESSON FOUR: Silence is golden. Sometimes, we writers fall so in love with our own words that we disgorge them onto the page with abandon, without consideration to whether or not they belong there. If we subject the reader to long passages of poetic prose describing the countryside, he may give up on the story altogether, or he may skip ahead to the good stuff, to where something is actually happening. Interweave description with action. Learn when to shut up.

Learn what to leave out. There is power in a character's pause, in the implied words he never says, in the actions she almost takes. Go ahead, and lead the reader toward a certain conclusion, but also leave something to the reader's imagination; it will often be more powerful than any words we might use to fill the gap.

LESSON FIVE: Daydreaming is an active pursuit. To the untrained eye, you're lollygagging. You're sitting and staring at the ceiling, out the window, into oblivion. You're watching paint dry. No. Your mind is active. In your mind, warriors are scaling cliffs, serial killers are stalking their next victims, a lover is desperately trying to capture the girl's attention, the gunfight is about to commence. Writers need time apart and alone in which to daydream. That's part of telling the story.

LESSON SIX: Patience is also an active pursuit. Sometimes, the words won't arrive when we need them. Sometimes characters dig in their heels, stick out their chins, and refuse to cooperate. They say things that raise our eyebrows or do things that startle the rest of the fictional populace. When this happens, don't scrap the work. Stop. Reflect. Consider the alternatives. Go with it--see where this leads. Go backward--see if you took a wrong turn. Most often, I see where the new road takes me, and I am rarely sorry.

Sometimes, you realize you've taken on a task bigger than you expected. (That's what happened to me with this current project). It expands like some sort of alien goo. How are you going to tell a story that's so big you stagger under its weight?

You can only do what you can do. You start. Perhaps you produce a timeline so that you know what happens next, who enters the story and where. Perhaps you outline the plot--as a whole, or chapter by chapter, or scene by scene. Perhaps you just wing it (my most-used strategy), and you write about this group of characters and their problems and desires, then you bring in other groups or events, and so on, and weave the tangled threads as you go. Perhaps you adopt an eclectic approach: seat-of-the-pants mixed with a little outlining here and there, and sometimes a timeline to help orient yourself.

However you approach it, don't give up. I've been with the basic kernel of this story for about twelve years, wrote other stuff and tinkered with this one, but didn't get serious for a long time because it was hard work. The story, however, wouldn't let me go. January 1, 2008, the first manuscript in the cycle was completed, and now I'm three-fourths of the way through the second one. Patience is an active verb.

LESSON SEVEN: Be true to the story.

Don't let others write it for you. Sometimes, we ask for the opinions of other writers, and their version of an edit or a critique is to rewrite the story in their image. Help is one thing; control is another. A good editor will hunker down inside your story, get a feel for it, try to look at the story's world through your eyes, then help you tell that story and reveal that world as best as possible. He won't take over and turn the tale into something it was never intended to be.

Go ahead, have a theme, but don't turn your fiction into a pulpit. This goes back to Lessons Three and Four: "Show, don't tell" and "Silence is golden." You may want to dramatize a family breaking apart, or a person being lured into an abusive relationship, or maybe you're going for a broader effect, such as nations at war, the politics of poverty, and so on. Perhaps you have experienced something similar, and the idea about which you write is a personal thing. You have strong feelings about it, or strong beliefs. Tell us a story, but don't tell us what to think, believe, or feel. A reader's imagination, personal experiences, and beliefs will do that job. He may disagree. That's okay. But, if you do your job well, he may keep reading until the end. What more can a storyteller ask?

Lastly, don't let others tell you it can't be done, it won't sell, you'll never finish, it's no good, whatever. If you--the author--believe in your story, if it grabs you by the collar and drags you to the finish, then it must be written, even if it won't sell or it's not good. You need to ask yourself why you're writing it in the first place. Perhaps it's not intended for the world. Perhaps it's the thing you must write before you can write something else. Many bestselling authors have years of work hidden in a filing cabinet or a cardboard box, piles of pages, thousands of words, that the world will never see. Those are the training manuscripts. Don't be afraid to write a few.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lessons from Littlest

Took a walk Monday afternoon with Littlest, who is not quite two. Wouldn't ya know it? She chooses the rattiest looking daisy to admire while telling me how pretty the flowers are.

in the backyard     c. KB, June 2012

Reminds me of God: He created us, and there's sure some uglies in the bunch -- I'm talking behavior more than appearance -- but taken all together, we're a beautiful sight.

Littlest then tries to pick a daisy, but she doesn't have the strength to do more than pop it's head off if she pulls any harder, so she looks up at me and asks for help. Of course, I choose a nice specimen.

c. KB, June 2012

Again, reminds me of God. He wants only the best for us. Sometimes, though, we're content with the rattiest we can find.

"Best" doesn't always mean shiniest, newest, biggest, costliest. A walk with a child is free. So is time, laughter, patience, companionship, a listening ear. Sometimes, the hardest to do and the most difficult to give is a shut mouth. Do we really need to express every thought in our heads?

c. KB, June 2012

Sometimes, the best thing is a session of sidewalk chalk in the driveway.
"What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway."
(credited to Mother Teresa)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Animal Control, or How to Remove A Squirrel Trapped in Your Fireplace (redux)

In honor of my brother's return to the States for a brief R&R, here's a re-post of a funny-but-true experience he had a couple years ago when an uninvited guest invaded the fireplace. Enjoy!

How to remove a squirrel trapped in your fireplace in 12 easy steps:
Step 1: Call pest removal service and get a quote.
Step 2: Have your spouse resuscitate you after you hear price quote.
Step 3: Repeat steps 1 and 2 until every pest removal service in the phone book has been contacted or until you understand that the lowest price quote is still going to be over $100.
Step 4: Contemplate purchasing commercially available trap.
Step 5: Decide $25 is still too much to pay and retrieve cage of your late hamster.
Step 6: Place cracked corn inside of cage, attach wire to door for remote closure, place cage (quickly) into fireplace.
Step 7: After about 12 hours of waiting, realize that the squirrel is NOT falling for it.
Step 8: Add seeds to cage and cover the cage with old tee-shirts to make it dark and cozy.
Step 9: Accept the fact that the squirrel will NEVER enter your trap.
Step 10: Lose patience with squirrel, get out flashlight, lantern, digital camera, and canned air.
Step 11: Harass squirrel mercilessly. This part is fun.
Step 12: Fear is good motivator. The squirrel exits back up the chimney the way he came in.

7  Things I learned while trying to evict a squirrel:

1. A squirrel can growl.
2. Squirrels do not like flash photography.
3. Squirrels will stare you down.
4. Squirrels jump when sprayed with canned air. 
5. Angry/scared squirrels in confined spaces can be quite entertaining.
6. Trapped squirrels are not fond of yelling, running children.
7. With enough motivation a squirrel can clear obstacles that were previously insurmountable.

"I made the mistake of leaving the shirt in the fireplace," said Bubba, "because he (the squirrel) just wallered it around until he made a cozy nest and went to sleep. He stopped trying to escape."

Here's a Sunday sermon: Even if your captivity is comfortable, you're still not free.

In addition to the above observation about no longer trying to escape, my wise younger brother said this several months ago: "When you get to the point that this is unacceptable, you take steps to change it. But you don't change until your dissatisfaction with where you are outweighs the risk of stepping out on faith." (Context can be read here.)

Amen, brother. Amen.