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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A Creative Compost {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 18}

More than half of the trees have lost their leaves. My green pepper plants have shriveled up and fallen over. The newest tomatoes have suffered frost bite. The veggies have grown through drought and flood in this hearty stew of compost and peat and vermiculite, but now it’s time to clear out the garden and put away the shovels and shears.

But even as the plants give way to the season, there is potential in the slow and still. The garden extras, the piles of crunchy leaves, the scraps from the kitchen, if I allow them the space, they’ll come together and create a whole new substance.

While your notebook is tucked in a drawer and you are resting from your work, something is happening in that stillness. When you pick up someone else’s book, when you sit face to face with the good people in your life, when you venture out of your writing world into fresh contexts, borrowed thoughts mingle with the ones already written.

Onto the heap of our drafted ideas, we throw new clippings and scraps. Sometimes inspiration will come from talking directly about your idea (though I wouldn’t do too much of that or you may lose some of your steam!), but most often it will come in surprising forms, the cast offs from listening to a stirring sermon or someone’s take on a current events issue or a family struggle.

All these apple peels, blades of grass, egg shells, used tea leaves, pine needles, these textures and flavors of all sorts come together and sit a while. Then ideas turn over one another and heat up like compost in the bin.

Maybe your essay or blog post or short story feels stuck. You shove it in the drawer and wonder if it should stay. But bring yourself into a new context and see what happens.

Maybe you’ll be like the man in the 1960s who left a failure of a project at work over the weekend. He turned out the light and locked the lab door on this new formula for glue, one so weak that the pages barely stuck together.

But in the choir loft on Sunday, amid the reverb of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, he looked down at the hymnal with his makeshift bookmarks, torn pieces of paper falling all around like confetti. He scrambled that morning to reopen the page for the choir number, but he’d never have to do that again.

Weak glue? Paper that barely sticks? A hymnal sprawled open letting plain paper fly? All these problems came together to give him the perfect idea for a hymnal marker, one that would stick but wouldn’t tear the page when removed.

In this moment of synergy, in this completely different context, a place of rejuvenation, the man’s subconscious did the work for him and the idea for the Post-It Note was born.

We refine our writing when we enter new contexts, engage in conversation, or soak in the words of a treasured author, even with our own story put away out of sight.

I had written a draft for my Gift from the Sea series detailing my night swim in the luminescent waters off of the islands of Thailand when I set my own writing aside to do some reading. As I came across the words of a fellow blogger through a link-up, I read some punch in the chest quotes from Surprised by Joy, a book I’d been wanting to read for quite awhile. I grinned when I came upon the shelf at the bookstore. The spine of Lewis’ memoir stretched tall, just four books down from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic written in the same year, these two works sitting together in a picture of synergy. Joy sneaks up on us, they both said in their own way. And my story agreed.

On the small scale of a blog post, the ideas compost in a matter of hours or days. When it comes to larger stories in creative non-fiction and novel writing, we can expect a much longer process. I mulled over the theme of Dress of Many Colors for more than five years before I felt the story was ready for dedicated writing. And even now as I’ve taken a break from it, the ideas continue to react to my everyday experience.

Whatever the nature of our work, when we venture out of its bounds, we let ideas commingle, we stir them up and let them sit again. We put the happy process on repeat and soon the pile turns dark and earthy, each ingredient becoming part of the whole until we can’t tell one idea from another, all of them blending into one rich compost, the boost our story needs to flourish.

{Are you getting out enough? Are you listening enough in conversation? Are you reading enough? How have you experienced the synergy of ideas in a current or past project?}

This is Day 18 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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(This post contains affiliate links to items that I personally use and enjoy. When you purchase through these links, you encourage continued creative community here at Message in a Mason Jar with no extra charge to you.)