Friends of the Fiction Writer {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 29}

Tomorrow night, I head down to college town to hang out with some of my favorite lit lovers. He runs the underground archives of the university, the ones he designed and organized himself. She’s a librarian who teaches librarians. And I get the privilege of listening in on a reading to give feedback as part of her research for her dissertation.

It pays to hang out with librarians, I’m telling you. Pretty much every time Julie comes for a visit, she brings a book tied up in a bow. Our bookshelves are doubly blessed for the friendship.

A few years ago, when she worked for a library in the school system, she asked me to design a media kit for visiting author, Christopher Paul Curtis. I combed through his factory-worker background and his award-winning book list. I picked up his novels, his move you to the edge of your seat with plot tension novels, his knock you off the edge of that seat laughing novels. In the clever and poignant, Bud, Not Buddy, I followed little Bud Caldwell on his quest from an orphanage to find the man from the jazz band flyer tucked in his suitcase, the man he believed to be his father. The writing seemed effortless, packed with conflict, motivation, likable characters, and fires and shanties of the Great Depression lifting up from the page through nouns and verbs like the images in a pop-up book.

For me, writing fiction can sometimes feel like trying to force open a window painted shut. My wordsmith leanings have me happy with theme and setting, but when it comes to believable characters and intriguing plot and conflict, I often get stuck. But sit long enough with a writer and you’ll get the whole story: the process hadn’t been so easy for Christopher Paul Curtis either.

Like Bud’s efforts to escape from the foster parents’ locked work shed in the dark with the impending threat of a hornets’ nest, Curtis had to keep working before he broke through. “I’d tried fiction, but I knew it was terrible.” He encourages aspiring writers saying, “Be patient. Fiction takes a long time. I didn’t really feel comfortable with fiction until my late thirties, early forties. I’d tried it, but I wasn’t happy with the results.” These are the words of a man who has written seven books and received a Newbery Medal, the Coretta Scott King Medal, and a Newbery Honor.

As we move forward in months and even years of reading, listening and practice, we can find our touch instead of losing it. Age can be a great friend to the writer. And so can the generous insights of writers, agents and editors before us.

From novelist and agent Donald Maass, I learn:
1. The best story world is a place prone to problems, one that has conflict built-in.
2. I need to lean on nouns and verbs to write highly specific details of setting, the ingredients that end up making it feel universal.
3. Position each scene’s conflict in the most difficult of spaces, a place with no escape (the subway or the police car as opposed to the kitchen or office).
4. Combine character roles to streamline my cast (lifelong friend is also the family doctor).
5. “If your heroine and her sidekick are standing still it ought to be because they disagree.”
6. My protagonist needs to do something after the climax/transformation that they wouldn’t have done before, an irreversible change or choice…even if it comes with second thoughts or a twinge of regret.

From author James Scott Bell, I learn how to craft a winning opener:
1. Using the name of the character seeing as “the specificity creates the illusion of reality from the get-go.”
2. In the middle of the action, something happening or about to happen, something interrupting or threatening (phone call in middle of night, boss calling character into his office, child taken to hospital, car breaking down on a deserted road).

From editor Sol Stein’s work, I try out the genious exercise of the Actors’ Studio Method using the plot and characters of Bud, Not Buddy:
1. Give the main character a script (goal). Bud’s script: “Big, mean Herman Calloway is your dad. He doesn’t know it yet, so you’ll have to show him all the evidence even if he wants to ignore it. You won’t leave until he acknowledges who he is to you.
2. Give the other character an opposing goal. Herman’s script: “A little pip squeak of a kid wants to tag along with your band and leech your money and time. You must get him back to where he came from without letting him close to anything you value.
3. Give a side character a third script. The Lady: “A lost boy is confused about who his father is. You need to get him a bath, some clean clothes and a good meal and help him get to the bottom of his mystery without letting him get emotionally or physically crushed by Herman.
4. Let them all go at each other and see what happens.

But practice can only take you so far. Eventually, you’ve got to sit long and write out the whole story that’s been buzzing around your mind, let it fly into open air. You’ve got to bust the door open and run free like Bud and his writer.

Some of you are just finishing the challenge of NaNoWriMo, churning out a draft of a novel in just one month. You amaze me. Most of us likely work at a slower pace, maybe sharing in a writers’ circle as chapters emerge or waiting to share a complete draft after years of mulling it over, outlining plot, drawing out characters and penning it all down. I’ve been crafting two novel-length ideas for a decade now, composting story lines, getting to know characters and drafting chapters here and there. For me, fiction takes time…and Christopher Paul Curtis makes me feel better about that.

{Have you tried your hand at fiction? What advice from the authors, agents and editors above is most motivating to you? What can you do today to move your story forward?}

This is Day 29 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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