Foundations

In the beginning…Once upon a time…There once was a boy…

Although many stories begin with interesting beginnings, it seems quite easy for a storyteller to get caught up in the “and then” action that propels the hero into the battle that faces him and the victory (we hope) that he enjoys at the end of the action.

I want to talk about the concept of setting up your story, building a firm foundation and then letting everything that follows stem from the first part of the story.

I owe this this attention and focus on the story’s beginning to Brian McDonald, who describes this phase as the story’s Act 1.  From this foundation of the story, all things must come.  They can’t be thrown in halfway into the story in order to rescue our hero because we, as the writer, hadn’t prepared for a solution. 

What this means is, Indiana Jones has to have already established early in Raiders of the Lost Ark that he uses his whip for all sorts of things.  If he pulled out the weapon/tool thirty minutes into the movie and it was the first time we’d seen it, we wouldn’t believe Indiana knew how to wield it.

In the film October Sky, we need to immediately see the father’s resistance to his son’s dream of building rockets and working at NASA in order to fully feel the son’s joy at the end of the film when his father finally supports his son’s dream.

In It’s a Wonderful Life when our hero decides to stay in his small town and take over the family business, we wouldn’t know that this meant something huge unless we knew about his dreams to travel the world that he now has sacrificed. 

Everything has to have a good foundation that occurs in the story’s beginning.  This doesn’t mean an info dump in the first twenty pages, but it does mean that the architecture must be carefully laid so that things flow naturally from one another and are logical rather an episodic. 

If a character makes an impulsive decision near the story’s climax, I want to have a reason that was established early on for why the character might act impulsively.  Is it because he had a father who never accepted impulsive behavior and this was an act of rebellion?  Was it because he was afraid of being judged for hesitating too long? 

Or when a character decides to risk her life for the man she loves, I want it established early on that she is idealistic.  Or, perhaps I might even make her a person who has hardened herself against idealism, in order to protect an old wound, but gradually she sheds this shell until she is ready again to risk everything for what she knows is good.

Think about the beginning of your story.  It sets the stage for everything else.

What beginning are you writing?  Are you stocking it with lots of fuel to burn through the rest of your story and give your character things to grow from and grow into?

The Great Balancing Act

How in the world am I supposed to write, rewrite, edit, market myself, blog, find an agent, network and find time for the seemingly hundreds of things that writers are “supposed to do” in order to establish themselves and win the great trophy of the title published?  (For those of you who can relate to this, it may be an appropriate time to tear at your hair).

I’m writing this to set your heart at some ease and keep the rest of the hair on your head.  I spoke to a published author at a writer’s conference a year ago who told me to go head and try all the recommended methods for finding an agent and getting published and then see what doors open for me. 

It’s willingness to do the necessary work that tends to lead toward opportunities and much-needed breaks, she said.

When I started getting overwhelmed by how I was going to structure my novel and whether I’d done things in the right order with the right timing and architecture, a mentor of mine assured me that no one in the industry “Knows what they hell they’re talking about.” 

He went on to assure me that most people know what they like to read, and that’s where it ends.  He didn’t intend to disrespect those on the publishing side of the industry, but the words were meant to comfort me, the fledgling writer who is beginning to spread her wings, and let me know that in the end it comes down to a really compelling story.

Revelation: I can’t write a compelling story if I’m exhausted, overwhelmed and bitter about all the busy-work I think I’m supposed to be doing to be successful.  For me, the desire to be responsible wells up very easily and chokes that creative, impetuous spirit that needs freedom and a light heart in order to function well.

So go ahead, enter the contests, create your own blog, join the professional twitter community, attend a writers group, submit short stories to magazines, start getting yourself out in the world and you will, at the very least, feel less alone on your journey.  That fact alone makes it worth it to me.

The most important thing for writers is to not lose the fire that started you down this road, before you ever wanted to make a living at it or gain recognition or be able to call yourself a published author.  If this means slowing down in your other marketing or networking activities, do it.  You can’t let that flame go out.

If you’re struggling to fan that enthusiasm back into being, I want to hear from you.  It’s our responsibility as writers to help each other stay writing.

An Unusual Detective: A Review

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Book CoverLooking at the world through another’s eyes can be enchanting, funny, disturbing or profound.

Christopher Boone’s avid attention to detail in this first-person canine murder mystery makes this story both funny and heartwarming.

A dog is discovered brutally skewered with a garden rake in the yard of Christopher’s next door neighbor.  His investigations follow the logic of Christopher’s revered Sherlock Holmes and continue dig up more trouble than answers, but he does not lose heart.

In between inquiries, Christopher explains what it is like to live in his autistic world by sharing his interests, dislikes and rational conclusions about events and subjects that he is told are irrational.   Nevertheless, he shows a very convincing argument for why yellow and brown are bad colors.   

For Christopher, logic can be used as a sedatives.  In stressful situations such as a crowded subway station, a complicated math problem that takes several minutes to solve is self-administered so that the body may relax while the brain is otherwise occupied.

As much a character study as a mystery tale, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is an intelligent and honest account of a young man perceiving the world with its hurts and challenges and bravely venturing forward to find his own place in it.

Concrete vs. Conceptual

All right everyone, put on your thinking caps.   I’m considering the ways we prefer to be inspired.

At a WOTS steering committee meeting last night we were debating the theme for our next year’s writing contest.  Entrants are given a word or phrase which they must use to form their work of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.

Last night we narrowed our choices down to two words, which for now shall be locked away in my secret vault. 

There was quite a distinction between the final choices.  One was a concrete word (think memory, door, flight) the other was a concept (think beauty, perseverance, beyond). 

We realized, after a surprising amount of time spent debating, that a concrete word gave the writer something tangible to start working with, while the concept provided a broader range of possibilities. 

I knew without asking myself that I’d rather have a concrete detail around which to wrap my story.  Another committee member said that the conceptual word was more flexible and inspiring and gave him more to work with.

For the sake of the exercise, if I said you could write about Endure or Rain what would you choose?  What are details that most inspire you?  Is the past or a the future more magnetic to your pen?

Unhappily Ever After

I’m rooting for the hero. I’m hoping to learn some deep truth, even at the cost of emotional pain for the hero and also for myself, because I tend to read with empathy. 

I reach the final page and I realize the story has ended without any resolution of the sorrow.  The ending has no consolation to offer me. 

I’ve just finished reading The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, a piece of short fiction by Carson McCullers.

This story deals carefully with the human condition and its propensity to love, and to love dangerously.

A divorced woman who loves a broken hunchback, a criminal who loves this woman, and the hunchback who loves this criminal intermesh into a love triangle.

The protagonist, Miss Amelia, receives love that is not earned, merited, or wanted and also experiences her own outpouring of unconditional, irrevocable and unrequited love for someone who does not return it in kind. 

A deep message arises: love needn’t have a logical motive, reason or cause.  A lover loves because that is what a lover does, regardless of the acceptance, suitability, or inclination of the beloved.  McCullers writes: “The value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover” and later: “The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

This brings to mind Ariadne’s love for Theseus, which is fueled by her own bright, unclouded heart and his desperate need for help.  We know little of their love, since it was so short-lived, but it is safe to say that Ariadne gave her love without mutual return.  

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe draws to its close with a feeling of stranded and abandoned emptiness, similar to Ariadne’s plight when she wakes alone on an island while the man she loves sails away.

What is your reaction to a story that ends sadly?  Does you want to immediately throw it aside? Do you pause to contemplate that the lesson may be a tragic one?

Do you write only sad stories?  Only happy ones?

The Golden Theme

It’s more than just an creating entertaining story, it’s building a story that resonates.  If this new book by Brian McDonald is anything like his Invisible Ink, you will blown away by the structure he reveals for how to write a story with maximum impact.

The best stories are not those that simply dazzle us with a car chase or wow us with clever dialog.  There is nothing wrong with either of these elements, but they shouldn’t be the main selling point of the story.

According to Invisible Ink, the story should follow a seven-step process and be supported by its key message or armature.

There is something to be said about striving towards a story with nothing extraneous to its message.

I am expecting great things from Brian McDonald’s new book.  You can pre-order The Golden Theme on Amazon.com now.  The image is not yet displayed on the Amazon.com page, but I’ve included it in this post.

To get a sense for Brian McDonald’s perspective on writing, visit his blog here.

I also highly encourage everyone to check out Invisible Ink.

The Humble Improve

sunsetA fellow literary mind approaches with the frank question–how much experience do you have in your field? 

“Oh well, I’ve been writing since I was ten.”

Which means, “I definitely know what I’m doing.” 

Any past success, whether it’s a published story of mine, or encouraging feedback from a reader, easily lures me into the trap of thinking that I’ve “arrived” and finally know exactly what I’m doing.

In an excellent post by Brian McDonald (author of the writing handbook Invisible Ink), he talks about meeting experts who keep open hearts, minds, eyes and ears for learning.  Even though these masters are considered leading thinkers and creators in their fields, they exemplify a readiness to be taught and receive correction.

Brian McDonald uses writers at Pixar as an example.  Pixar invited Brian to tell them what he knows about creating story structure.  Although they are considered top writers for what they do, they were kind and receptive to the new information presented.  (Nobody said “I’ve been doing this for a long time, I know what I’m doing”).

I hope as I continue to gain knowledge and increase the breadth of my work, I remember to welcome every learning opportunity with the same enthusiasm and attention that I had when I first began my journey.

It’s a little scary to not lean on past successes as a comforting crutch.  The result is that you are once again a beginner. 

What is the scariest part for you about keeping a “beginner’s mind”?

Make Positive Effort for the Good

Writing and life are inseparable.  I think this is why Natalie Goldberg applied the Zen lessons she learned to the practice of life, art, and writing. 

This morsel of wisdom, the third and final in the list she shared at WOTS, reminds her audience to “make positive effort for the good.” I almost seems too simple, too transparent. 

Practically speaking,  Natalie used the example of forcing herself to brush her teeth when she didn’t feel like doing anything.  A recent divorce served as the prime reason for her listlessness.

Perhaps it begins with brushing my teeth and evolves into buying a bundle of pens that I prefer to write with or having healthy, yummy snacks in the place where I work. 

Some days, it means writing one page of nonsense, just to make sure I’ve written something.

The little bits of determination add up to a large swath of gumption.  I wish you the very best of luck. :)

Don’t Be Tossed Away

rejection“We’re sorry to inform you that your submission was not a good fit for our magazine.  Best of luck finding a place for it elsewhere.” 

Haven’t we all been there?  There’s no way I can avoid being refused or ignored when I take my art and show it to the masses.  Rejection is a fact of the writing life.  How in the world do I find ways to keep my chin up?

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, had some great things to say on this topic. 

Isolation is the best locale to for high impact discouragement.   I read harsh criticism, I suffer an attack of jealousy for another writer’s success, or I’m wrestling in front of my computer with writer’s block and if I’m I’m alone, it gets bad.

Natalie shared her technique of writing with others, including finding restaurants that never have all their tables full and writing in them for hours at a time, all the while keeping herself in the presence of people. 

She’d call a friend and leave a message asking her to meet at a particular time, but not to call back as to whether she could make it.  This made Natalie show up for the work regardless of whether her friend would be there.

She’d leave chocolate chip cookies in her studio to bribe herself  to work there.

The most important thing is to not be cast away by discouragement, laziness, or anything else that tends to block my path.  Surrounding myself with people and techniques to motivate  me is a good line of defense.

I’ve used chocolate MANY times.

What “safety line” do you use to keep yourself from being tossed away?

Writing Down the Goldberg

I was entranced by the candid, encouraging and graceful presence of Natalie Goldberg earlier this month.  She spoke as the keynote at the Write on the Sound Writers’ Conference in Edmonds, WA the first weekend of this month and the theater was packed. 

Natalie is very famous for her book Writing Down the Bones.  She began her talking by jumping right into her process of discovering herself and becoming a writer. 

Her first plan of action was to think of the thing that had brought her the most pleasure in the world.  This turned out to be selling raffle tickets for a goldfish when she was a small child. 

This fun entrepreneurial spirit morphed into her banding together with like-minded individuals and beginning a natural foods restaurant.  This, combined with a poetry book filled with lines about food inspired her to write about the foods that she she lived and breathed in the restaurant.

Natalie went on to study many things, including Zen, and after years of practice, she decided she had learned three extremely important things from it.  She shared these with us.

1. Continue Under All Circumstances

2. Don’t Be Tossed Away

3. Make Positive Effort for the Good.

I would like to explore these three lessons and what a writer can draw from them.  First, Continue Under All Circumstances:

This lesson has to speak to the times when I don’t want to continue, otherwise, why would I need the reminder?

If I am sick, I or have a big event that may impact my writing schedule, or if I’ve suffered a huge loss, none of these are reasons to retire my pen. 

To be honest, some of my best work has occurred when I was unhappy.  I’ve had a lot of great work when I am happy, too.   If I only write when I am happy, and I missing out on everything good I might have also written when I was sad/busy/tired?

How do we find it within ourselves to continue when laziness, exhaustion or even deep grief seems to build a wall in front of us? 

I pray.  That should always be the first thing that I do, but sometimes my “continuing under all” looks more like me barking at myself in a drill sergeant voice.  Trust me, it’s not nearly as comforting.

After praying, it helps to remind myself that writing is so much more than creating for others–it’s the way I have found to most closely express myself.  Writing is therapy, food, play, work, art, sorrow, rage, determination, trust, and of course many other things to me.

I believe we must continue in all circumstances with our writing even when we do not know what the writing will do for us.  Trust that no word is ever wasted, and allow yourself a dedication without 100% comprehension.

I read in the Artist’s Way that when it comes to our art, we just take care of the quantity and let God take care of the quality.   

Our responsibility is to continue under all circumstance.

Next time, thoughts on Don’t Be Tossed Away.