Unfinished stories

bedwell-hbr-1977

Silk’s Post #154 — If you’re a writer, you have unfinished business. Don’t try to deny it. I can’t believe there’s a writer alive who doesn’t have at least one half-written manuscript stashed in some bottom drawer. I have two of them, frozen in the middle of the story, like the last-viewed frame of a movie put on “pause” and then forgotten.

But that’s not what this post is about. What I’m talking about is all those little mysteries served up for us every day, snatches of real life stories-in-progress we observe and, if we’re writers, we wonder about.

We don’t know what came before. We don’t know what will come after. All we’re left with is this one glimpse, this one clue, and the twin questions that are ever on the minds of story lovers: What’s the backstory? What happens next?

These moments can be inspirational for a writer because there’s a germ of a story in every scenario. Glimpses of life on the street, in an airport, at the mall, in a restaurant, on the beach … all those good “people watching” places. We can’t help following any interesting little drama that comes our way, to see how it plays out. Really, it’s none of our business.

But writers are like spies. We snoop.

Now, sometimes there’s really no story there. Just boring old, everyday, predictable stuff. After all, if life is full of little mysteries, it’s also full of little clichés. But maybe the writer takes away some bit of noteworthy colour – an accent, a gesture, some tension beneath the surface, or perhaps a micro-expression of tenderness – that can be recalled later to add texture to a scene.

But when you do observe a little piece of mystery, it haunts you. I’ll sketch out one of these incidents from my own life to show you what I mean, a scene seen and not forgotten. It happened years ago, but it still sticks in my mind …

The Runaway

It’s a late October Saturday in Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island, and we’re pushing the envelope on the cruising season in our small, unheated wooden sailboat. Only one other vessel, a 36′ Grand Banks trawler, is anchored in the small bay of a marine park that’s usually chock-a-block with boats in the summer.

We’re two diehard cruisers, apparently, sharing this lonely anchorage in the late-afternoon chill of an overcast day.

As an invisible sunset approaches, an eerie pink blush colours the western sky. I wrap myself in a heavy Cowichan sweater against the damp cold and grab my trusty Nikkormat, intent on capturing an arty portrait of the slightly surrealistic seascape. (The now-faded result is above).

What I also capture is a memory of a mysterious incident that has stayed with me for four decades.

Out of the Grand Banks cabin comes a coatless teenage girl, perhaps 14 or 15 years old. Her body language is agitated, her motions more a product of nervous energy than purpose. A late-middle-aged man follows her on deck. Pursues her, really. He’s the right age to be her grandfather. A woman who looks to be his wife sticks her head out of the cabin door to watch, an anxious expression on her face.

The choreography of the deck scenario is a pantomime of entreaty and rejection. I can’t make out their stuttering conversation because they’re downwind of our boat, but the drama unfolding is clear. He puts a hand out to her, tries to engage. She turns her back, shakes her head, steps away. Like a cat climbing further up a tree to avoid her rescuer, the girl stays out of reach. He advances, she retreats, again and again.

There is no reconciliation to be had, and it’s a small boat. The grandfather and grandmother confer, an intense discussion, their heads together. They keep glancing at the girl now standing alone in the cockpit hugging herself in the wind. Finally, he steps inside the cabin, leaving her to calm down.

Does their conversation go like this?

Grandfather: (frustrated) I can’t get through to her, she’s just unreachable. You can’t help someone who refuses to be helped. So what do we do now?

Grandmother: (calming) Let her simmer down, she just needs some alone time. Don’t worry, she won’t stay out there long, it’s freezing. And she can’t go anywhere.

If that’s what they say, they are wrong.

The girl steps onto the Grand Banks’ transom and pulls the boat’s dinghy in on its painter. It’s a small rowboat, the kind that was common 40 years ago. As the wind picks up, she climbs down, unties the dinghy, and fits the oars into the oar locks.

By the time Grandpa and Grandma come bursting out the cabin door, the girl is halfway to the deserted shore. She pulls at the oars with more fury than coordination. Choppy waves splash against the dinghy and the wind flings salt spray over her. She’s still coatless.

As she nears the narrow beach that fringes the steep, forested shore, I look back toward the Grand Banks at a scene of panic, with both grandparents now standing at the rail, yelling at the girl to come back.

She ignores them. She’s deaf to their increasingly urgent cries. When she hits the beach, she awkwardly jumps out of the dinghy, one foot in the cold water, and drags it partway up on the beach. Then, with one look back, she covers the fringe of beach in a few determined steps and plunges into the forest at a narrow trailhead.

Gone, just like that. The dinghy rocks with the waves breaking on the beach, half on shore, half still in the water. Dusk is approaching.

Back on the Grand Banks, the man and woman seem paralyzed with disbelief. They continue to strain against the rail, calling to the girl who disappeared. Then they stop calling and simply stare toward shore. The man retrieves binoculars from the cabin and scans the forest. They can’t follow her. The dinghy was their only way off the boat.

They retreat to the cabin.

Within half an hour, I hear a powerful outboard engine and our boat rocks from a wake. I go back out in the cockpit to see a small Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel approaching the stern of the Grand Banks and watch the boat-to-boat conversation, full of urgency and gestures, between the rescuers and the grandparents.

The Coast Guard boat pushes off and follows the dinghy’s path to shore, two of the crew minding the boat and one disappearing up the forest path. Dark is falling quickly.

Then we wait. Coast Guard crew, anxious grandparents, and me – the spying neighbour.

Though I think the search seems like a fool’s errand, it would be unthinkable not to try to find the girl. But it’s now almost dark, and the shore is a vast, forested pile-up of bluffs, threaded with trails and not much else. It’s cold out in the cockpit, and there’s nothing to see. Our portable kerosene heater down below has warmed our small cabin and the brass lamps have been lit. But I can’t tear myself away. I’m hooked.

When I finally see the bouncing flashlight beam on the shoreline and the rescuer emerges from the shadow of the forest – with the girl in tow – I’m shocked, but relieved. She wears his oversized jacket. Her head is down.

They climb back into the search-and-rescue boat and take the dinghy in tow. In flashlight glimpses, I see the Coast Guard vessel stop alongside the Grand Banks and hand the dinghy painter to the skipper.

I wait to see the girl climb on board, back to the embrace of her grandparents, contrite perhaps, her tantrum over. I wonder if the incident is destined to become a future family tale that will be embellished and embroidered with years of re-telling. A colourful story that will be repeated by the girl’s grandchildren someday, to laughter and feigned disbelief.

And then, the rescuers – with the rescued girl – roar off into the night.

What?

Why didn’t they return the girl to her grandparents? But wait – are they her grandparents? Where are her parents? Why was she out on the boat? What was she upset about? Where did the rescuers take her?

You can probably think of a dozen more questions.

The next morning, Sunday, I expect the Grand Banks to depart at first light. It’s understandable that they didn’t up-anchor in the night to follow the girl, but now, in the light of day, they have urgent and unfinished business to attend to.

But they don’t leave. They carry on as though nothing at all happened the night before. Just an older couple enjoying a quiet, relaxing, off-season cruise. We leave at noon. Monday is a workday. They’re still anchored there, dinghy floating placidly off the stern.

Grandpa putters with some minor deck chore. Grandma calls him in for lunch.

The End.

Feel let down? I still do. An unfinished mystery story is an irresistible call to any writer – a call to fill in the blanks. We want to turn the page, and when the next page is missing, we feel compelled to write it.

Give in to that urge, and maybe the half-a-book in the bottom drawer will actually get finished one day!

Playing the ‘what if?’ game

brainstorm

Joe’s Post #108 — One thing I love to do as a writer is brainstorm. And eat donuts. But since writing about donuts appeals to only a few people, let me talk about brainstorming for a bit. Again.

After reading all my 5/5/5 writers, I went through their posts, mining ideas from their thoughts and observation. I wondered how I could use them in my own stories. Not that I want to steal their ideas, no, I want to take some of their experiences and turn them around a bit.

sheriffLet’s look at Silk’s post. Having a character without internet in today’s modern times creates some huge challenges. Romantic challenges. What if a character had just got a text that said, “If you still think we have a chance, meet me at-” and the text goes out. What wonderful complications would be created? Or a criminal case where your character had to get something faxed to her that would prove that the villain was actually the villain and not just the handsome sheriff who everyone loved?

Or what if someone simply tries to go a day without the internet? Or a week? Or a year? What great complications would arise? What if…?

And that’s how I love to create stories. What if.

Austria apartmentWhat if there was more to Karalee’s hay stacks than just stacks of hay? What if they were really stacked that way for a very dark reason, one none of the locals would ever talk about, one linked to the disappearances of a pair of UN workers last week?

Or what if they look like penises for a reason that’s not all sick and twisted? Personally, I can’t think of one, but others might have an idea.

Or what if, after holding your grandson in your arms for the first time, he goes missing? I mean, hey, you wouldn’t be some buff Vin Diesel guy out to find a child, you’d be older, perhaps a little out of shape, perhaps completely unskilled in detective work, perhaps with a bum leg, but what would you do to get that child back?

Or what if you always wanted that feeling and took a child?

I think it’s a vital part of the story-telling process even if you never even write that story. Think of it as exercise for the brain. Or practice for when you are actually writing a story.

For me, by constantly looking at something a little sideways and playing the ‘what-if’ game, I hope that when it comes to writing my own story, those cool twists and turns will make my readers think, “man, he’s a nutjob”, or “I never saw that coming.”

Honestly, I’d be happy with either of those thoughts.

But I do wonder what other writers do to exercise their brains? Does everyone play the ‘what if’ game? Or am I a nutjob?

A story in there… somewhere… waiting to get out.

stray_dog_filth_01

Paula’s Post #67 –

So, another shocking admission. Occasionally, not often, but occasionally, I need to actually ‘search’ for a subject for my weekly 5writers post. But we 5writers like to ‘riff’ on a theme, and Silk provided much needed inspiration when she started us off this week with a great post yesterday entitled ‘Artful reality and cutting out the dull bits.

So let the scissors fly.

Snip, snip, snip.

stray_dog_filth_02

Silk’s post of yesterday was about cutting out the dull bits to improve pacing, conflict, tension, paring away to the essence of a story so that only the ‘drama’ remains, illustrated by Alfred Hitchcock famous question: “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?”

Quite independently, I’ve been thinking about paring down, too. And not just my busy schedule. Yes, It’s been another hectic week here in the desert. March is the best month to visit Greater Palm Springs, and between the La Quinta Arts Festival, Polo in Indio and the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.

Nary a dull moment.

Up this week?

Home tours for clients, bocce tournaments, tennis clinics, margarita parties, and entertaining a couple of very special house guests. Admittedly, my ‘writing time’ is more or less confined to just rolling story ideas around in my head, hoping to find settings, characters, plot and most of all, beginnings, middles and ends in the nascent jumble of ideas that is my next novel.

This is fun, but not always easy.

I know that when I’m ready, I’m going to need to apply a bit more discipline to this process of ‘finding’ my story, a process that is both creative and judicious. A process that requires keeping those scissors close at hand.

stray_dog_filth_03

On the one hand, I’m excited because I have a general idea of my story, some settings, characters, plot and sub-plots. But right now, the ideas are all a bit of a jumbled mess, ricocheting around in my head.

I haven’t written much down yet. Unlike my 5writer colleagues Joe and Karalee, I’ve yet to start on my outline.

I will, I promise, but for the past 9 months my husband and I have been ‘living out of a suitcase’ (at least metaphorically speaking) since the sale of our home in West Vancouver and the purchase and renovation of our new little house in the tiny coastal town of Gibsons Landing, B.C.

So yes, I feel adrift. I need a place to call home. A place to set up my writer’s ‘corner’ and start writing. (I doubt I’ll snag a whole room – this time I’ve promised that my husband gets the one and only room we’ve officially designated as an ‘office’ in our new little ‘downsized’ house. But a corner would be nice.

In the meantime, I’m thinking about the essence of ‘story’ and why some people make it in this ‘biz’, while others, equally talented, equally motivated, equally creative… fail. We’ve all had fantastic story ideas that have failed in their execution. The fast-penned YA thriller I whipped out in under 5 months during our 5writers5novels5months challenge an excellent case in point.

I know I had a pretty good story idea, a great premise, the genesis of some strong, quirky characters and plenty of action. But all this good stuff lay buried, lost in a jumbled mess. Somewhere… a story lay trapped, waiting to get out.

stray_dog_filth_04

Someday, I may cut away not just the “dull bits” of my story, but also the bizarre… the confusing… the dropped threads… the repetitive and the extraneous, until I find my story.

stray_dog_filth_05

Yesterday, I stumbled upon a site, (new to me at least) called ViralNova, featuring trending stories on the web. If you haven’t ‘clicked to it’ by now, the photos above are from that site. The ‘story’ of a poor little stray dog, literally a filthy mess when found on a road way. At least this story had a happy ending.  This lucky pup got an extreme makeover. The photos of her transformation are now making their way around the Internet, going viral.

It turns out the stray Shih Tzu was rescued by La Société Protectrice des Animaux de Québec (SPA) (Quebec Society for the Protection of Animals) in Canada in 2011.

My story?

Hopefully the one I’ve already written will one day get rescued, too. Oh, and the one in the planning stages, I’m just hoping there’s a story in there, waiting to get out!

 

stray_dog_filth_09

Snow job

image

Silk’s Post #74 — It’s dim in the house, the light coming exclusively from the windows. Grey light, a muted reflection of the cloud ceiling off the mounding snow. One dancing orange light in the room: the fire in the woodstove. Sound effects: snow bombs sliding from the bowed limbs of our forest, hitting the roof and deck in thuds with a floury explosion.

This is the best I can do by way of a post this week. We’ve been without power for a day and my iPad is down to 15 percent. I’m racing the clock, knowing I’ll be powerless at least until tomorrow.

Our wet coast late February surprise has intervened in normal life. (I’m down to 14 percent power now). Thwarted all my plans and put me even further behind than I already was. Left me unable to answer demands, with a kind of enforced free time on my hands.

What have I been doing with this gift? Writing long hand. Writing character sketches, scene ideas, story structure notes. With a pen. In a notebook.

Wow. What a concept. Thanks, Mother Nature!

(Down to 10 percent power).

To outline or not to outline

Joe’s Post #74

hamletThat is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of rewrite after rewrite or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by outlining end them.

Thing is, it’s not like there’s a right or wrong answer here. No really. It totally depends on the writer. Both ways – outlining or not outlining – have their good and bad points. Very quickly…

No Outlining – More creativity. Easy to get into the flow of writing scenes. Maximum inspiration. See Writer’s Digest take on it. Downside – You will need to rewrite the whole novel – sometimes more than once – unless you’re super amazing (and there are writers out there like that). It’s a TON of work to rewrite a whole novel. Like remaking a piece of Ikea furniture without instructions and forgetting to attach the noobler to the wookweiner. And then redoing it again cuz like you forgot the wankdinger has to slip inside the bagvik. Yuck, right?

Outlining – Easier to keep a complex plot organized. All sorts of wrongish things can be spotted and fixed. See Joseph Finder‘s take on it. Downside  (a big one) – it can suck the life out of your desire to write that story. Like writing Ikea instructions. In your own blood. While it’s raining. It’s hard, blood-soaked work. And isn’t writing supposed to be fun?

left right brainIt’s the classic left brain vs right brain. Logical, analytical, objective vs intuitive, action-oriented, subjective. Spock vs Kirk.

Now, I’ve tried both outlining and not outlining, but for the last novel, I settled on a hybrid make-a-rough-outline-then-write system. Sort of like a Frankenstein’s monster that tried to marry creation and order. 

That system, which I have dubbed, the ‘it looks like someone threw up sticky notes all over my table’, resulted in a surprisingly hole-filled plot. Oh, I remember the critique well. “Joe, you forgot about Blahblah the Dorfmaster who appeared on page 67 and then was forgotten.” Or, more embarrassingly, “You have no ending. No climax.” Or “You forgot to bring coffee to the critique session.”

Not good. Not good at all.

REWRITE time!

Now all of these things, (and many, many more), I could have solved by a more detailed outline… but a detailed outline that SOMEONE ELSE READS.

That’s why we’re looking at doing up a detailed outline for our next big 5/5/5 meeting. It’s one thing to write out one of those things, to go through it yourself and try to spot errors or omissions or a propensity to overuse the word ‘blood-soaked’, but another thing entirely to have someone else look at it. Where are the high points, the low points? Is there action or tension or sex in enough scenes? Have I lost a character or two in the journey? Is my plot so tight you could bounce quarters off it?

See, none of us have done a detailed outline and shared it. The hope is that by doing so we’ll learn a little more about plot, character, story-telling, emotion, pacing… well, pretty much everything. I’ve been fortunate enough to critique an outline by a great outliner and have found that I can often get a better idea of the story than if I read the whole novel and certainly better than reading 30 page chunks at a time. It’s like looking at the whole pizza and seeing if it needs more cheese, or pickles or whatever. It’s way easier than judging it from just one bite (or 50 bites over a year).

Who knows if we’ll all turn into dedicated outliners? I suspect Silk will never be one as she is such an amazingly creative person. I suspect Paula, having done such a great job with her last novel, will continue to outline as a way of keeping her from running after shiny new things. Karalee and Helga could go either way.

Me, I’ll just be happy to try something new.

What I hope, though, is that I’ll become a better story-teller like the guys who wrote Up. Sadly, I’m still a lot more like Dug the dog.

 

And then what happened?

lil-red

Silk’s Post #58 — Once upon a time there was a … little girl who wore a red riding cloak … young prince imprisoned in a tower … big hungry brown bear … bearded dwarf whose axe had turned to rust … lonely maiden with hair that fell to her waist … wolf who could not howl … wizard who lived in a tree … writer who wandered the world in search of the perfect ending.

You’ve easily recognized each of these as a story waiting to be told. Just add “and then what happened?” and the narrative-generating triangle is complete: protagonist, problem, plot. The pattern is essentially the same for all stories, whether a simple nursery rhyme, an ancient mythical saga, a complex techno-thriller, or a modern murder mystery.

And that pattern is, apparently, imprinted in our DNA. Why?

That stories have always been with us since we became human beings – or maybe before that, if you ask me – is one of those truths we accept easily, like the sequence of day and night or the fact that we have two hands rather than three. Stories are understood as natural phenomena. Which makes storytelling fodder for science, which always abhors magical explanations.

In his online Wired article, “The Art of Immersion: Why Do We Tell Stories?”, Frank Rose sets out the de-romanticized case:

“Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener — an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy.

Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature — a face, a figure, a flower — and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.

So powerful is our impulse to detect story patterns that we see them even when they’re not there.

In a landmark 1944 study, 34 humans — Massachusetts college students actually, though subsequent research suggests they could have been just about anyone — were shown a short film and asked what was happening in it. The film showed two triangles and a circle moving across a two-dimensional surface. The only other object onscreen was a stationary rectangle, partially open on one side.

Only one of the test subjects saw this scene for what it was: geometric shapes moving across a plane. Everyone else came up with elaborate narratives to explain what the movements were about. Typically, the participants viewed the triangles as two men fighting and the circle as a woman trying to escape the bigger, bullying triangle. Instead of registering inanimate shapes, they imagined humans with vivid inner lives. The circle was ‘worried’. The circle and the little triangle were ‘innocent young things’. The big triangle was ‘blinded by rage and frustration’.”

If you’ve ever doubted the power of story, or the fertility of human imagination, your mind should now be at rest.

You’ve probably done this yourself many times. It’s called people watching. You’re waiting in an airport, a restaurant, a park, and you find yourself in a daydream state. You watch passers-by and make up stories about them. Who they are, where they’re going, and why … What’s his story, the man in the raincoat that’s a little too big for him? Why is he walking so fast? Is he trying to catch a plane, or avoid someone? Yes, there, he just looked over his shoulder … and then you make up a narrative to explain what you see. It’s natural, and seductive. Maybe even compulsive.

Stories are serious instruments, capable of creating change, peace, fear, hatred, ease, love. Great minds that have thought deeply about the role of story in human affairs have even wondered whether the cause-and-effect relationship is circular rather than linear – with reality generating stories, and stories repaying the favour by creating reality.

But that’s getting a little deep for me, because this post is about clearing away all the noise in my brain – all the received wisdom about fiction writing that eloquently fills the thousands of pages of good-advice books on my shelf – and focusing only on the simplest, purest element: Story. That part of fiction writing that a child of three understands just as well as an elder of 93.

Amid all the complexities of the writing process – the genres, market segments, grammar, style, agents, queries, character development, setting, dialogue, tension-building, pace, plot points, hooks outs, blogging, three-act structure, heroes’ journeys and god knows what else – it’s easy to lose sight of the most important thing. And there can be only one most important thing.

Story.

Today I decided to take a break from writing book number two, and rewriting book number one – okay, I wasn’t doing both at the same time, in fact I wasn’t doing either one, but I was mentally obsessing about both of them – and think a little about the story for book number three. What a refreshing change – like escaping from a smelly, wet bog full of sucking mud to a fragrant forest rill with warm sunlight sparkling on the ripples.

Some writers are natural storytellers. Their minds effortlessly wander in a narrative pattern. These are the bards – the ones who share a gift with the traditional troubadour, griot, seanchai, poet, teller of folk tales. The rest of us have to work at it. Work at getting back to the joyful basics of pure story.

Writing is what I already know how to do. Storytelling is what I’m learning. One epiphany that’s finally dawning on me (oh so slowly, and so late) is that story is not plot. Story flows organically. It’s the natural answer to the question “and then what happened?” Plot advances mechanically from one strategic point to the next, like a military campaign. Maybe this is a faulty distinction, but that’s how I see it.

Story for me is a noun – a kind of magical place we try to evoke. Plot is a verb – an effort to  create an interesting route map to get us there, and lure our readers to come with us. It seems to me that, while plot keeps readers turning the pages, it is story that lingers in their memories afterward.

Every writer wishes to find that secret route map: the plot that will unerringly deliver us to the perfect story with the perfect ending. All the writing gurus, god love ’em, try their very best to give us the directions. Oh, you’re looking for Story? Just keep heading up Tension Drive, cross Conflict Avenue, and when you get to Crisis Square, take a left …

Of course, there is no secret route map, and writers who try to follow some off-the-shelf, sure-fire formula usually produce a book that can boast fully-checked-off ‘to do’ lists … but little story magic. Sometimes they can even sell the book. Perhaps you’ve read some of these plots, and quickly forgotten the story – and maybe the title and the author too.

I’m hoping for something more ambitious. A novel that harnesses plot to reach that indescribable, elusive haven called Story. 

No better way to get inspired than listen to master storytellers tell us about Story in their own words:

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” — Rudyard Kipling

“Love is the answer to everything. It’s the only reason to do anything. If you don’t write stories you love, you’ll never make it. If you don’t write stories that other people love, you’ll never make it.” — Ray Bradbury

“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.” — Steven Spielberg

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” — Willa Cather

“We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’ This is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of a novel.” — E. M. Forster

“Storytelling is storytelling. Good stories need compelling characters and interesting conflicts. That’s the bottom line no matter what medium you’re writing for.” — D. J. MacHale

“Know the story – the whole story, if possible – before you fall in love with your first sentence, not to mention your first chapter. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind – making it up as you go along, like a common liar.” — John Irving

“I am always at a loss at how much to believe of my own stories.” — Washington Irving

“Don’t forget – no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.” — Charles de Lint

“All stories interest me, and some haunt me until I end up writing them. Certain themes keep coming up: justice, loyalty, violence, death, political and social issues, freedom.” — Isabel Allende

“You should do what you enjoy doing, what brings you passion. As kids, we spontaneously sing and dance and tell stories, and along the way, someone comes and says, ‘No. You shouldn’t be doing that.’ And we slowly begin to unlearn our passions. I think you have to hold on to those things.” — J. Michael Straczynski

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” — Muriel Rukeyser

“Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories – and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories.” — Alice Munro

“To hell with facts! We need stories!” — Ken Kesey

How to write a short story (or how not to)

Joe’s Post #54

short storiesAnother confession. I find short stories very hard to write. Like getting a rusted nut to turn with your fingers hard. Like doing math in your head hard. I like big stories. Novel size stories. GRR Martin novel size! With grand sweeping storylines, a thousand characters, clever themes and epic final battles.

Hard to put all that in a short story. Yet, there was an open call for one so I thought to myself, self, let’s give it a try. It’s sort of the same process I went through to do zip lining (minus some of the screaming).

So, here’s how it went. First, I needed an idea. The magazine was looking for stories about Cyborgs and I love cyborgs so this was a good fit. I immediately went into full-on nerd mode and thought of an idea. Zombies and Cyborgs. Oh, I love both, so why not put them together? Like an undead Sarah Connor and the terminator. Oh oh, or how about Robocop and the zombie apocalypse?

Then I read the submission guidelines closer (note to self, read things carefully before going into nerdgasms.) The editor said, and I quote, “Zombie stories. Seriously. NO.”  Now call me crazy, but it seems to me like he wasn’t a whole ton of keen about the walking dead. So, I had to rebrainstorm. (my new word.)

dogNow doing this alone isn’t easy for me, especially if I can’t use any zombies. But I started with a character – as I now start all my stories. In this case, a dog. A cyborg dog. I named her Daisy, cuz, like, that’s a cool dog name. Then I gave her a problem and a companion and threw them both into a post apocalyptic world where mutation runs rampant and power-armored Crusaders roam the land with big ass flamethrowers incinerating anyone with tainted flesh.

Then I just wrote it.

And you know what? I had fun. But when I finished, I went back and looked at it.

It needed more. So I looked at adding more conflict, more humor, more emotion. I raised the stakes a bit, then a bit more. I made sure everyone had a goal and wanted something important to them. I made my characters suffer.  I cut out anything that wasn’t amazing or awesome.

Now, this took a whole lot longer than it really should have taken, but I got it done, and, despite a few technical glitches, (rot in hell, word 360!), I submitted it today.

It felt good to get something new out there.

Wish me luck.

It’s back to the novel tomorrow.

Mining My Life

Joe’s Post #53

mark twainOne of the greatest writers (no, not me) said, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” Mark Twain.

So let me look back at this week in my life and put that to the test.

Tuesday: 10:00 am. Meet a doctor who was so pale that the white walls behind him had more color. Like he had never seen the sun. Like he was allergic to it. I wondered how he managed to avoid the sun so effectively. Hmmm. He wore the thinnest glasses I’d ever seen. Pencil thin. Half an inch from top of the frame to the bottom. I wondered how he could see out of them at all. Hmmm.

Tuesday: 10:30 am. There I am. In an elevator crowded with patients and doctors. The doors open. More people stream in. One lady, a bit of the large size, wearing a blue hospital smock marches in, stands beside me, pivots 45 degrees to stare at me. Just stare. At. Me. I pretended not to notice, but it gave me the willies. “Maybe she was doing a test on how uncomfortable she could make people feel,” I was told by the funniest person in my life.  Hmmm.

skatesTuesday: 4:00pm: Lace up a 6 year old’s skates. I work really, really hard at doing them up tight. I pull. I yank. I strain. And finally I get them so tight, you couldn’t slip a gnat’s butt-hair between those skates and his ankle. I am so proud of myself. Later, an hour after skating on them later, I’m told that I put the skates on the wrong feet. Hmmmm.

Wednesday: 6am: Huge pain in stomach. Upper region. This is something new and completely unpleasant. Try to will it to go away. 7am. It’s not going away. It’s getting worse. A lot worse. Do I head to the hospital right away? Ah, no. I shower first and shave. If I’m going to die, I figure, I want to at least look ok and not smell like last week’s laundry. Drive to hospital. Not as easy as you think when you’re in a lot of pain. Grunted a lot. Swore a lot more. Got into emergency at 8am. And that’s when the fun began.

Wednesday: 8am: Give me information inform the nurses that I have, ‘severe abdominal pain’. ‘take a seat’. So I do. And I wait. And it’s getting a lot worse. A LOT. I can barely take a breath. It’s 9am when I go back to the nurse’s station and a nurse is chatting with a doctor. I sit, because, well, the sign says sit, so I sit and neither one of them looks at me. I manage to peep out, “hey” and the older one, the doctor, snaps, “we’ll be with you in a minute!” Like I’m bothering her. Like it’s not her job to kinda look after sick people. Like I’d come to her house and knocked on her door and tried to sell her time-shares in South African slums. Beside her is a sign that says foul language and threatening behavior will not be tolerated. I think there should be a sign that says foul language and threats will be expected if hospital staff are douches.

Wednesday: 10am: Who else is in the waiting room? I have to get my mind off the pain. There’s one drug addict waiting for his, what, fix, methadone? He’s lying across 2 chairs in what looks like clothes he’s dragged out of a dumpster. Another sits rocking back and forth has two different shoes on. The third patient is someone who says he’s going to do something to himself. The forth, well, he looks healthy so who knows, maybe a rash on this testicles or something. Amazingly enough, all of us are waiting. The drugged up guys I kinda get why they made them wait. But me, I’m in serious distress and the guy who’s going to do something to himself, why yes, sir, just have a seat and we’ll get to you sometime before you stab yourself in the neck with a bic pen. Sigh.

morphineWednesday: 10:02: Blood taken, three jabs to find my deeply hidden veins, EKG done, and then on to a bed. Nice nurse. Close-cropped black hair. “What’s the pain level, Mr. Cummings, On a scale of 1-10?” “10!!” I shout. IV stuck in. Morphine applied. Ten minutes later. “What’s the pain level, Mr. Cummings?” “Two, dah-doo-da-doodle. Two-tattoo. Two-badoopeedoo.” Ah, morphine. It was my friend that day. They never did figure out what was wrong. Just what it wasn’t. Wasn’t gallstones, wasn’t an appendicitis. Probably good, since if it was the latter, I would have died in the waiting room while the doctor was discussing her choice in coffee creams.

Is there a story in any of those events? Probably not. Not even about the woman who took care of me and the friend who looked after my dog while in the hospital. But characters, sure. The rude doctor with her blond hair like dried hay, the drug addicts or my personal favourite, the guy who was going to off himself and was told to wait in the waiting room. Or the creepy lady who stared at me like she knew something was wrong with me, like maybe she put a curse on me.

Ah, who knows? But life is full of all sorts of grist for the writer’s mill. This week, more than most.

Lost and found

map

Joe’s Post #45 – What if there was a roadmap for story writing? Would you use it? Would it destroy the creative process? Would it make your story like every other story that used that roadmap?

We already have the basics of a roadmap, the western 3 act structure. Add the odd guide on outlining or The Writer’s Journey and whammo, there’s a few more beacons. But that’s about the limit of the directions. Kinda of like asking a local where the ruins are (or nudie bar or whatever you’re looking for). As often as not, they wave in a general direction. “It’s over there.”

That’s about the best directions we can get for writing. We know the story is over there somewhere. We can see it in the distance like a beautiful, imaginary castle. How we get there, though, can be as different as the stars in the sky. A literary path might include poetic language, memorable descriptions and lots of sunsets. A thriller novel might be very fast paced and include a car chase, a sexy sidekick and at least one gun battle. Stephen King might add a killer clown.

For me, the journey of writing, walking that path to the glorious castle in the distance, is part of the fun. Sure I’ll get lost in the woods. Sure I’ll get stuck in the mud. Sure I’ll even get disheartened sometimes.

But I’ll get there and what I’ll discover along the way can be amazing, things I never thought I’d find. Quirky characters. Odd locations. Nifty twists and turn.

lostSo, at least for me, I don’t want a detailed road map. I love the journey. I even love getting lost now and then. It’s how I make the story better.

Make them suffer

art-suffering

Joe’s Post #42 – That was my mantra at the writer’s retreat. “Make your heroes suffer.” Make it hard for them.  Or, as Silk put it, torture them.

But here’s the thing. Like my fellow writers have said, that can lead to melodrama and pointless infliction of disasters upon the hero. Lemme give you an example.

We have our main character, Joe, a heroic sounding fellow, who gets hit by a car on the way to work. That’s suffering, right? While he’s lying there, his arm broken and the bone sticking through his skin (yuck!), someone comes and takes his iphone, his collection of vintage Star Wars figures (NOT TOYS!!!) and his shoes for some reason, then kicks him in the nuts. Ouch. More suffering. But wait, the ambulance arrives but skids on a patch of ice and runs over his legs, then crashes into a telephone pole that falls not to the left of him, not to the right of him, but bang, wham, right onto his chest, and before poor old Joe can say holy sh*t, wtf is happening, a bomb explodes and he’s riddled with shrapnel and while he’s screaming in agony, the last thing he sees is a meteor heading straight for him.

perilsSuffering? Sure. I guess. But would you want to read this? Maybe Jerry Bruckheimer would, but it’s just a pile of bad crap happening to heroic Joe. That’s not a story. That’s not what I meant by making him suffer.

Suffering is so much more. It’s about making the impossible choices. Which child would you save and which one would you let die? What are the consequences of the choices made and how can they affect the character? It’s about personal stakes and how can things matter to the hero?

Or, something simpler. Our heroic Cop-Joe walks into a bar looking to find a serial killer. He says, “hey, I need to know something,” and the bartender says, “sure, you need to know about the guy who came in her last night, all covered in blood wearing a name tag that said, ‘Hi, my name’s Bob Bobbington’ and oh he dropped his wallet so here’s his address and an NRA card that says he owns an AR-15 and he’s written on the back of the card that he’s booby-trapped the door with explosives.” To which Joe says, “Thanks, I was looking for directions to the bathroom but whatever.”

Who wants to read a scene like that? It’s way, way too easy for our hero. To make that scene harder for him, what if it’s an old bar he used to visit but now he’s a cop and not welcome there? What if the bartender doesn’t actually want to talk to him? What if the bartender lies? What if the bar is full of bikers or rabid Harry Potter fans who think Cop-Joe looks like Voldemort? Oh the possibilities.

Suffering should be less about random occurrences that plop on the character’s head like bird poo. They should be born of the actions the hero takes and the personal choices that are made, but also born of the wants/desires/hopes/fears of those the hero encounters, the obstacles faced and overcome (or not). The poor bugger doesn’t have to suffer on every page, but the harder it is for the character to reach his goal, the more the choices have consequences which may make things EVEN HARDER, the more the scene, the chapter, the story can sizzle.

At least for me.

As I start my rewrite, I know there are places where I can make the choices harder, make my stakes more personal, make my character suffer as much by their own hand as much as anything.

Oh, I have a few scenes in my book that are like that. One character ends up destroying what she set out to save. Another has to make a terrible sacrifice at the end.

But oh, I can do so much better.

And I will.

Pages Rewritten: 15

Queries this Week: 1

Rejections: 1

Cool Movies Seen: 2 (See The Heat, freaking hilarious. See Man of Steel, but go knowing it’s not the greatest movie ever made.)