Archive for January, 2013

My Sister’s Novel Ideas

Monday, January 14th, 2013
First posted January 11, 2013 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundTheTable.

When I was growing up, I always looked to my oldest sister, Susan, to see what was ahead. Because she played the guitar, I was sure I would someday. Because she went to Prom in a dress with a boned bodice, I was planning on that, too.

sue dance

I am lucky to have her example in this matter of writing as well.

Years ago when I began drafting my present work-in-progress, she sent me a list of ideas about writing a novel. I read it every so often for its distilled wisdom, and want to share it with you, verbatim:

Dear L –

Here’s what helps me most, spewed out in not any order at all:

1. See the story like a movie in your head. Write down what you see, even in a broken way, fast. (Fix later.)

2. See the story like a movie in your head with the sound turned off. Then where is the story? Edit to make the story powerful even with the sound off. This is a way to heal the talking head syndrome.

3. Think: What can I do to raise the stakes?

4. Not everything a writers’ workshop says about your story is right. After being workshopped, put your story away for a time, maybe a month. Reflect. Only then tackle again.

5. Choose concrete words, words that cause the reader to imagine as exactly as possible what you imagine. Look for words which create accurate images which are value-loaded.

6. Leave out everything the reader already knows.

7. The story is in the telling.

8. Run all details through the backpack test. (The idea is from my wonderful teacher Sands Hall: Remember that when you give a significant-feeling detail, the reader packs it into her memory and carries it through the whole story expecting her labor to pay off at some point. You must make sure there is a pay off.)

9. Staying in the same pov, you can roll the ‘camera’ in and out. It’s easier by far to start far out and roll camera in — at beginning of chapter or scene.

10. The end is in the beginning. The seeds of the conflict in the story must be present in the beginning. The beginning is often the last thing you know. Drop into the beginning advertisements for the future — foreshadowing.

11. Tense spots are a good place to dump in necessary history.

12. Dialog should never be people agreeing with each other. If they agree, use indirect discourse.

13. The tone of the story establishes it, creates expectations in the reader, as much as anything else — plot, genre, etc.

14. Henry James: “We only care about people in proportion to how well we know them.”

15. When a character walks into a place, how they see it establishes their character. They walk in with a bag of metaphor.

16. Beginnings: have to give the look of things early, or the reader fills in, and then is unpleasantly surprised to have to repaint the picture. Have to foreshadow the major plot strands, so reader can sense them unconsciously.

17. The end is often the reverse of the initial situation. The best endings are implicit, not explicit. They force the reader back into the story and themselves, looking for meaning.

18. Madeliene L’Engle in Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art: “All they (children) require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer a protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist. We name ourselves by the choices we make, and we help in our own naming by living through the choices, right or wrong, of the heroes and heroines whose stories we read.”

19. There should be something in the near and in the far distance that the protagonist wants (long and short plot strands).

Do you have a copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales? There is this wonderful fairytale about storytelling, The Elder Tree Mother. Among much else, the Elder Tree Mother, sitting in her elder tree which grows from a teapot says, “For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder bush has sprung out of the teapot.” and later, “The little boy lay on his bed and did not know whether he had been dreaming or listening to a story.”

Love,  Susan

 The Treekeepers by Susan McGee Britton, published by Dutton Children’s Books in 2003, is now available electronically: http://www.amazon.com/The-Treekeepers-ebook/dp/B00ANX0TSW/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1357792592&sr=8-2&keywords=treekeepers  It is a wonderful fantasy novel about a fierce heroine, Bird, whose life-or-death quest sparkles with ingenuity and wit. And I’m not just saying that because the author is my sister.

Image

Here’s a more recent photo of Susan in her role as Granny Skeeter to Max, Benn and Jake.

This weekend I will be speaking at the Whidbey Island MFA in Writing residency. I plan to share my sister’s wisdom.

Bit by Bit Putting it Together

Monday, January 14th, 2013

First posted December 14, 2012 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundTheTable.

“What’s the story?” my dad used to ask if I was having a hard time pulling together an article for his newspaper.

It’s a question I am still, always, asking.

Being a writer means sifting through memories, experiences and observations for the material that is charged, for the pieces that line up to tell the story. Usually it is the emotional component – humor, anger, fear, grief – that signals an event is story-worthy and has the juice that will hold a reader’s interest as you tell the story.

MINING FOR DRAMATIC TENSION

For instance, last week we discovered both of our kids had chosen the same date for their summer weddings. Unbeknownst to each other, plans were moving ahead for June 8 festivities in Palm Springs and Seattle. Throw in the fact that the six of us are getting together soon to celebrate John’s and my 40th anniversary, and the tension ratcheted up to find a solution.

This is the stuff of story. I put on my writer’s hat for the six-person phone discussion. A story-gathering perspective offers helpful objectivity. Like any good reporter, I tried to gather information. I also noted tones of voice and scraps of dialogue. I considered which words would best describe the weight in my chest – or was it my stomach? Churning? Tightening? And I imagined our way forward. Oh, I am lucky to be a writer. I could see myself dancing at two beautiful weddings.

Mostly it’s unplanned experiences like this that offer fodder for stories, but we could be more intentional. Peter Sagal on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me said he actively chooses life experiences for their anecdotal value. I think the guy we saw on Nature who gave over his every waking minute to raising a clutch of wild turkeys is this kind of storyteller. An amazing story resulted. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/my-life-as-a-turkey/full-episode/7378/.  Now he’s off to live a year with mule deer in Montana.

trapeze550

I, too, have a commitment to going after a good story, but the voucher for trapeze lessons that my husband gave me last January for my last birthday still waits on the shelf.

We writers live in a continual process of noting and sifting, weighing and arranging, looking for the potent pieces that add up to the bigger thing. In a heartrending story about her mother, former student at Vermont College, Melissa Chandler, talked about this process. “If we try to act as archeologists of those who gave us life,” she wrote, “what are the artifacts we uncover and keep? Objects? Words?” http://thehairpin.com/user/9639/Melissa%20Chandler.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Building a story is more than finding the charged bits. It’s about assembling, too. I once mistakenly listened to an audio book on “shuffle.” I enjoy stories with skewed chronology, so it took awhile to figure out what was going on, but it turns out what piece of story rubs up against the next matters.

tree

After I strung the lights on our Christmas tree last weekend, I decided my result was a lot like the plotline of the middle grade novel I am revising. The lights are carefully placed at the top where I began, winding in and out of the branches, but they get sparser and loose toward the bottom, covering bigger and bigger expanses with a single strand. When an LED bulb went out, the rest of the string went dark. It is not a big reach to recognize I need to go back into my novel and add more lights, to twist the plot more carefully around all of the branches, all the way through.

I look forward to that – and to two weddings — in the new year. Happy holidays to you all!


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