Why new writers need the “Make Your Story” series

30 May
Sheherezade

“Scheherezade” by Édouard Frédéric Wilhelm Richter 

I started writing Make Your Story on my blog because I wanted to contribute some of my ideas about imagination, vision, and voice to writers who are just starting out.

Make Your Story is less about how to write a story than it is how to “make” good writing and artwork.

This is because you have lots of options for learning about story and structure as a new writer. I highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with those key elements and here are some great places to start.

In this post, Now Novel has good overarching advice about structure. Follow that blog for solid insights to story, fiction, and the rudiments of writing prose. They always have intelligent things to say about writing.

Writers Digest is always trustworthy and this article by Orson Scott Card is general but excellent.

On a more specific, structural approach, the 7-Point Plot Structure is a good tool to know, and I bet you already do if you’ve seen any Hollywood film more than three times in your life. What you may not know is how to execute it.

If you respond to the 7-point approach and want to know more, check out the Story Structure Database by KM Weiland. This database breaks down an impressive number of contemporary films and classic novels into plot points (almost always the 7-point structure, I believe). This approach doesn’t always work neatly (Moby-Dick wasn’t written to be wedged into this structure) but it’s a terrific resource if you have movies, books, or authors in mind that you want to emulate.

And there are many other great resources. Feel free to mention your favorites in the comments so other writers can check them out!

But I started Make Your Story because, for all the blogs and resources out there about story structure, there’s precious little on the Internet about (a) feeding the imagination, (2) employing personal material in fiction/art, or (c) considering how one sees the world and how to develop a writing aesthetic and voice that express what you see.

This is because people have the expectation that you can teach yourself to do anything on the internet. Wanna grout your bathroom? Change your oil? Pull up a life-hack on Youtube! And it’s totally, utterly awesome that that’s even possible. I believe the modern human species is better for widespread knowledge-sharing.

Storytelling isn’t solely like grouting bathroom tiles, though it can be! Now Noel’s piece on how to use adjectives in fiction takes that approach, and it’s good advice, indeed.

But creative storytelling (fiction or nonfiction) is also learning how to take what you see in the world and make it into a narrative that other people can relate to.

Ever try to tell a story that really happened to you, only to have people read it and say, “That doesn’t seem realistic.” And you think, joke’s on you because THAT’S THE WAY IT REALLY HAPPENED!

Well, the joke isn’t on your audience – it’s on you. All writers do this at some point because they haven’t yet developed a sense for what real-life material works as story or how to deliver it so that it will. We’ll talk about what makes good material and how to use it, in Make Your Story.

Every professional writer dreads the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Mainly because the answer is so sewn into their DNA and/or brainwaves so intrinsically that they can’t articulate it and know they’ll sound like idiots if they try.  In Make Your Story, we talk about ways to feed your imagination and deepen your pool of available story ideas.

Writing also requires an aesthetic (AKA knowing if your writing is awesome) because at the sentence level, your writing style has to be engaging, beautiful, or seamless/invisible if readers are going to keep reading your work. Do you know what seamless writing looks like? Can you imitate it? What is a beautiful sentence as opposed to purple prose? How do you engage people with words? Great writers typically express their personal aesthetic with a killer writing voice, a skill we’ll talk about here, too.

Lastly, making your own story requires learning how to really see the world, not just repeating what you think you know or churning out cliches. Cliches especially stand in the way of a personal aesthetic/voice and saying what you really want to say. Do you know what that is? Do you know what you’re really looking at when you look at something? Are you sure?

What about the name? Why “make your story” and what does that mean?

Minneapolis photographer Doug Beasley refers to photography as “making a photograph,” not “taking” one. “Taking” a picture is quick and sounds underhanded while “making” a picture is mindful, takes a little time. “Telling” a story is similar. It sounds like it’s all done, waiting inside you until you are ready to spill it, like Sheherezade famously did for 1001 nights in a  row, when really, writing or telling a story is usually a creative, mindful process (and often a slow one).

So please join me and let’s talk about how to make your story.

Make Your Story: Reframing a Childhood

30 May
Kaj_Family_reunion_group_1988

How many points of view are in this picture?

 

Have you ever imagined scenes from your life story using entirely different points of view?

I don’t know why you would. Your story is your story because it’s yours, and your point of view matters most in your own story.

Recently, I was given reason to re-examine key scenes in my childhood. New information reorganized everything. It made me wonder why I hadn’t seen it or even guessed it before, and why I needed this Other Truth in order to see my story from a different point of view. There was no way to know this Truth, but I’m imaginative – I might have guessed.

How about you? What didn’t you see? What couldn’t you have known?

Your story is the sum of the decisions you make, but, always, around that story are family, friends, teachers, allies, coaches, clergy, neighbors, social workers, previously unknown family members, police officers, your parents’ co-workers, maybe even political figures or celebrities, all making decisions that impacted you, maybe in ways you could not control, and never fully appreciated until later. Until now.

A story changes dramatically depending on who tells it. Can you imagine your story told from another point of view? Is it possible to tell our own stories where we are not the champion achieving, the victim suffering, or the young hero struggling, where we are something else than we’ve been telling ourselves our whole lives?

Because we are. We take on different archetypal roles, in differing points of view.

Writing Prompt #1: Recall a figure from your past who made a decision that had life-changing impact on you. Don’t pick anything overly traumatic or devastating, please.  (We’ll get to those sorts of scenes another time). Pick a figure from your past who diverted your course or changed your point of view dramatically.

Imagine that person, their decision, and a scene that exemplifies their agenda,  position, and biases. Write from their specific angle, not through your eyes. Imagine the scene through their profession, age, gender, and with their senses. Get in their bodies to write.

Render this re-envisioning as realistically as possible. Tell the story as straight as you can, as respectfully to the other person’s agenda as you can.

Write 500 words. Keep your hand/fingers moving until you reach the word count. Don’t stop. Don’t second-guess. Don’t edit.

Writing Prompt #2: Pick a scene from your life (childhood?) with lots of people in it. A religious gathering where something big was revealed or a wild drunken family reunion with tension about money, ancient intergenerational grievances. It’s gotta have some edge to it, and you need to have been there.

Write that well-known scene from the point of view of someone other than you and preferably not someone close to you or in your sphere of immediate influence. Pick someone whose actions and reactions will be remarkably different if not “opposite” from the way you and the way you’ve remembered this scene.

For this one, it’s ok to really let your imagination fly. Bring in fantastical elements if you like, if that helps you imagine other agendas. Doesn’t have to be starkly realistic.

Write 500 words. Keep your hand/fingers moving until you reach the word count.

 

Photo credit: By Family assistant (Demitz files, acquired by FamSAC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Make Your Story: How to Really See

27 May
IMG_1502.JPG

“Woman Smoking” by Barth Anderson

Consider drawing some shadows.

I’ve taken up pencil drawing recently and learning to draw shadows is illuminating (don’t hurt me).

Drawing shadows is a little like learning to see inside-out. I have to look at something and see where the pencil will touch and be darkest instead of following the outer line of what I want to draw, the contour, the weight, or the most distinguishing feature. Most of the time, the shadow is precisely where my eye does not land or see.

So to teach myself to start seeing darkness, I started drawing stills from Noir movies and black and white photography with heavy-duty shadows. That’s what the above drawing is — an attempt to draw the shadows that someone else has identified for me.

Now that I’ve done this for a couple weeks, I can see shadows much better. When I look at the pine bush in my backyard, I see a green cylinder of shades, depth in the branches and needles. and I see deeper into the shape. I see past the label in my brain of what that plant is in the backyard, PINE BUSH, and I now see it differently. I see a different thing altogether.

I’m struck how seeing with new eyes has come to bear on my writing in such a short amount of time.

I think this is because these “new eyes” are how Dream Barth sees things. Day Barth just sees PINE BUSH, if he even sees it at all. He already thinks he KNOWS what it is, so doesn’t even really look at it, as he stops right in front of it to ask himself, “Did I bring my keys?” Dream Barth really looks at this big plant and goes, “Oh cool, it looks like a great big jack-o-lantern! See the how shadows make a face?”

I see everything differently now as a result of taking up sketching and drawing shadows. Of course, I am aware of the light and the bright color of leaves in sunlight but it’s not where I put my eye right now. When I walk through the park to my bus stop, I see a bank of interesting shadows across the trees or I see a hallway of shadows leading into the trees, to the shadows on the bark of the trunks. I’m more aware of where the light is coming from, the angle with which it hits the branches, and how tree-shadows are made.

Seeing with new eyes. New to me. A new way to look at the world all around, almost like a new sense organ.

As a writer, do you fully experience what you’re writing about? Do you smell it and taste it? Does your mind leap and make almost childlike associations about the thing you’re imagining, remembering, building in your mind? Do you really see it or do you just know it and write about it like Day Barth pausing by the pine bush to look for his goddamn keys?

Take time to see your creations the way the dream version of yourself might see them. Look through your dream eyes and cock a dream ear. I know your Imagination is always hungry for this pause, this slower more deliberate focus on things themselves. I know it. I’ve experienced it.

Writing Prompt #1 – Put everything down – the laptop screen, your notebook, your notes. Sit quietly for a good five minutes.

After five minutes, start thinking about your main character or any important person in your life whom you think you know well.  Imagine them in a situation you haven’t seen them in before or in a scene you would never include in your book. They’re on a modern day rooftop looking at a storm coming in. They’re eating a mango in a foreign country. If it’s slightly incongruous (but not surreal), that’s ok, too, maybe even better. Let your mind fantasize about their very physical presence in this scene. Don’t just ask yourself “what are they wearing?” and be done. Ask what shadows are being cast upon their bodies. Are they from from pronounced cheekbones? From their pronounced chin, their deep eye sockets? Or a hat? What do they smell like? If you touched them, what would their skin, their hair feel like?  If you kissed them, what would their mouth taste like right now? Don’t think about THEIR experience. Experience them through your own five senses — all of them. Then write down everything you just fantasized.

500 words. No stopping at all. Keep going if you hit the word count, but don’t stop before you do.

Writing Prompt #2 – Write a list of five mythological animals or beings. Now make a list of five people you know very well, or use characters from your story. Randomly pick a person and a mythological creature. Write how each person is like their corresponding critter, but ONLY use senses of smell, sound, touch and/or taste. No visuals.

500 words. DO NOT STOP till the word count is meant. Keep going if you hit it, but don’t stop before you do.

Make Your Story: Dreams and Blocks

25 May
dreamer

“The Knight’s Dream” by Antonio de Pereda, circa 1655.

I’m writing a lot about embracing dreams in the creative life on Con Gusto lately, so I want to offer up a testimonial about how this practice impacts me.

I blogged about how I met my main character in dreamtime, and in that post I said,

I hope you keep a dream journal or otherwise make time to heed and record your dreaming self’s stories and symbols. If you aren’t, you may be missing out on some of your freest, most wide-ranging creative outbursts.

I had a creative outburst two nights ago after I posted about Synesia of Cylene. That night, I dreamed I was in a big shoot out in a railyard, dodging between rail cars, etc. At about 3 AM I woke up and started writing a story. I don’t remember waking up. In my memory, the dream dissolves into me at the laptop typing. But I remember writing and having that superb feeling of not being able to type fast enough, I was so inspired. It took about an hour to write the 700-word story.  Then I went back to sleep.

If this were an infomercial, this is the part of the testimony where I’d say, “With the Barth Anderson 110$ Guaranteed Dreamtime Method, I wrote a story in my sleep and made A MILLION DOLLARS — and YOU CAN TOO.” But I haven’t done anything with the story yet, don’t know if it’s even publishable, let alone, you know, “good.” Because none of that matters.

What matters is that my imagination fucking rocks right now, at a time when cranking out the words on my novel-in-progress while producing new short stories and keeping completed short stories in circulation is the name of the game for me. I’ve done this by exercising my Imagination well, by keeping a night-book, by directly askingmy dream self fun things to think about, by writing every day, and keeping the muscles used to “imaginate” well limbered. So well, in fact, that I can’t shut off my creative side in the middle of the night.

And part of why this is meaningful to me personally is that I’ve had terrible writer’s block, off and on over the last ten years. Knowing that I can emerge on the other side of that very hard time and circumnavigate the creative block is such a relief that it’s almost cathartic, soul cleansing. I fucking did it, friends.

And you can too.

Dealing with Writers Block
1. Be kind to yourself. No scolding. Turn off the inner editor. This might mean…
2.  Meditation. Learning to kindly turn cruel, scolding thoughts out of your head.
3. Keep a “night book.” Write at least 500 words about every dream you remember. Keep your fingers typing or hand writing. Never pause till the word count is met.
4. Counter depression with good healthy food, great sex, fun exercise, sunlight, vitamins.
5. Keep reading awesome writers in your field. Contact the ones who move you and tell them how great they are, how much you enjoyed their work. Be effusive and grateful.

And do your best to maintain a writing discipline. A little every day, even if it’s not on a work-in-progress. Point #3 above will help you get to the other side, I promise.

Writing Prompt #1 – Try writing 500 words, starting the second you wake up. Don’t make coffee. Don’t brush your teeth. Don’t let the fertile fog of dreamland drift away. Write about something you dreamed, or decide the night before what you’ll write so you don’t have to think about it. Write in bed. Keep your fingers typing, your pen moving. Don’t stop. Not one little bit.

Writing Prompt #2:  Write about the reality-based inspiration for your dreams. Write out the dream, and then write about what may have prompted the dream from your reality, the “seed.” Write about why you think your dream-self focused on that image/moment/event/person? What does the dream say about the seed, if anything? What was the mood or main emotion of the dream? How was your dream inspired by the seed? How did your dream-self run with it, change the scene, go crazy with it? Don’t self-edit or filter. Write 500 words as fast as you can, keep your hand moving and your fingers typing till you hit the word count. Do not stop.

Make Your Story: The Night Book

23 May
nymph and satyr

Nymph and satyr: A Roman Mosaic in the Basilica of Cylene

Around the year 400 CE, the Greek Bishop Synesius of Roman Cylene wrote about dreams for his children in a book titled On dreams (De insomniis). In it, he claims dreams are divine revelations, or, alternatively, they’re diviners. Each of us has a personal fortune teller inside us, says Synesius, comparing dreams to a “prophetess” and calling them “our oracle.” All of us have access to this oracle and she is with us, always:

Even if we remain at home, [our oracle] dwells with us; if we go abroad she accompanies us; she is with us on the field of battle, she is at our side in the life of the city; she labors with us in the fields and barters with us in the market place. 

I like this a lot. “Our oracle” is not a visitor coming to us only at night. She’s like a guardian angel, standing at our sides constantly, and almost 1500 years before Freud recommended keeping a dream journal in order to better remember dreams, Synesius recommended keeping what he calls a “night book.” But it’s not merely to better remember dreams, according to Synesius. A night book is for the betterment of one’s spiritual (mental?) health:

One ought to keep both a “day-book” and a ” night-book “…and so have memoranda of what goes on in one’s ordinary life and in one’s dreams. I have tried to show that the life of Imagination is better or worse, according to the state of health in which the spirit finds itself.

Where Synesius hits the mark deepest is in this: A balanced self addresses our beloved oracle, our Imagination, our dreams. By incorporating dreams into our everyday perspective, it broadens and deepens our ability to perceive and to articulate by forcing us to contemplate the dream story.

A dream places all kinds of contradictory states before us, together. Imagination thus sets them forth; but how is anyone to describe them? No stern law can prevent the magnificent flights of fancy in which a sleeping person indulges. In sleep, he holds converse with stars and associates with the gods who are invisible in the world; he understands even the inarticulate sounds of the lower animals. Just imagine what it would be to attempt a description of all this.

This is excellent advice for any writer or artist, in any genre. To write down your dreams is to record a story that your Imagination is constantly narrating, about your labor in the fields, about your fields of battle. Ignoring this ongoing, incessant narrative means ignoring half your mind, a third of your life.

Consider that as you contemplate telling your stories.

Writing Prompt #1: Keep your hand moving or fingers typing until the word count is achieved. DO NOT STOP. Write down the most recent dream you can remember. If you can’t remember one, write down any dream you can remember. If you tell the dream before the 500 words is up, start writing down what you think it means.

Writing Prompt #2: Keep your hand moving until the word count is achieved. DO NOT STOP. Take a striking, strange image from a dream, recent or not, and give it its own unique reality in a story. Try to retain the mood it gave you in the dream. Or give it a new life and meaning. Let it be a symbol on its own in your writing.

Go back to the beginning of my series Make Your Story.

Begin Your Dream Journal

4 May
hypnos

The god Hypnos, so powerful he swung the Trojan War. Statue. British Museum.

Consider how you listen to your dreams.

Do you?

I don’t pretend to understand what my dreaming mind is, but I do know it’s a creative workhorse, offers me regular insight, and generally seeks to help me on my “day job” (writing) whether I ask it to or not.

Right now, I’m working on a novel about the Spanish queen Juana the Mad. Recently I hit an impasse. I had decided long ago that Juana was a reluctant hero, but it seemed very important not to stop at the idea of “reluctance.” I wanted to her reason for reluctance to be palpable in the story, not just understood with a nod and wink because people get the reluctant hero trope. (A decent thought exercise: Come up with three “reluctant heroes” and define their reluctance if you can. It might not be as easy as you think.)

I decided to put my dreaming brain on the job. I wrote my question on a piece of paper (“Why were you reluctant to be queen, Juana?”) and kept it in my hand while I fell asleep.

That night I dreamed I was breaking into a woman’s apartment. I was with an unsavory character from my own past and we were ransacking this woman’s house looking for pot (mari-JUANA) and found pictures of a Latina woman all over the place. The woman with her parents. Her with her children. Eventually neighbors came in and confronted us saying, “Leave this poor woman alone! Why are you tormenting her? You can’t do this!”

I woke up, like, wow. Thanks for nothing, dream-brain. So I tried again the next night. Same ritual with the piece of paper. But this night, I dreamed I actually spoke to the Latina woman and her son. Same apartment. Same items everywhere. The woman was furious and clutched her little boy to her chest, sneering at me, “You have no right to do this. You have no right to ransack through my personal life, like I’m not even here. Like I don’t care what you’re doing. You don’t care about me, you just WANT something.”

When I woke up, I was chuckling to myself. At myself. Right. Juana was reluctant because she wanted her privacy. She didn’t want to be queen because she knew it would be the end of her private internal life. And I couldn’t see that, because I was one more historian/writer completely violating her privacy. And she was a very private woman — the guards and layers around her make her both intriguing and difficult to understand, but they were there for a reason. She had been destroyed by tragic losses. She was humiliated by her husband and court intrigue. Her own son ransacked her castle for gold when he needed it.

Me, I’ve turned her inside out, too, trying to understand this confusing, fascinating, and sometimes opaque character from history.

I wouldn’t have had that revelation about Juana’s role as hero in my story without approaching and offering my toys for my dreaming self to play with. I don’t know how I would have ever come to this thought on my own — that Juana was resisting history, me — especially as tied as I was to historical, empirical research. Leaping beyond the facts and intuiting something deeper and human about Juana was exactly what the story needed.

I hope you keep a dream journal or otherwise make time to heed and record your dreaming self’s stories and symbols. If you aren’t, you may be missing out on some of your freest, most wide-ranging creative outbursts.

Writing Prompt 1: For one week, write 500 words per day inspired by a dream. Start a a dream journal if you haven’t already. Even if it’s just a fragment of a sketch of an image from a dream, this prompt will help your dreaming mind start to believe she’s being listened to. Keep your hand/fingers moving. Don’t stop until the word count is met.

Writing Prompt 2: Taking one of the above 500-word entries from above, flesh it out to a 1000- or 2000-word fiction piece. Create a drama. Characters. Try to keep the juice of the dream intact. Or abandon it if it’s in the way. Write it in one session. Let the first draft sit for 28 days before you rewrite a single word of it.

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Photo credit: By British Museum. Dept. of Greek and Roman Antiquities; Walters, Henry Beauchamp, 1867-1944 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Walk About by Pablo Neruda

3 May
Neruda Young

Poet Pablo Neruda

It just so happens I get sick of being a man.
It happens when I enter a tailor shop and a cinema,
Withered, impenetrable like a swan of felt who
Navigates through headwaters and cinders.
The odor of barbershops makes me scream.
I just want a break from stones or wool,
I just do not want to see office parks or gardens,
No retail products, no bifocals, no elevators.
It so happens that I get sick of my feet and my nails
And my hair and my shadow.
It happens that I get tired of being a man.
However it would be sweet
To frighten a paralegal with a cut lily
Or kill a nun with a blow to the ear.
It would be cool
To run wild through the streets with a green knife
Screaming until I die of hypothermia.
I do not want to keep on keeping on like a root in darkness,
Hesitant, extended, shivering in my sleep,
Going down, buried in wet entrails of soil,
Absorbing and thinking, just eating every day.
I do not want so much misery.
I do not want to keep on keeping on from root to tomb,
Underground, cellar of the dead
Terrorized and dying of grief.
That’s why Monday flashes like a gas fire
When he sees me coming with my thug-face on
Monday peels out like a wounded wheel,
Making hot bloody tracks into the night
And shoves me into certain corners, into certain humid houses,
Into hospitals where bones break through the windows,
To certain major shoe chainstores that stink of vinegar,
To streets that haunt me like chasms.
There are sulphurous birds the color of gruesome intestines
Hanging from the doors of houses I hate,
There are forgotten dentures in a coffeepot,
There are mirrors that should have wept with shame, terror,
There are umbrellas everywhere, and poisons, and belly buttons.
I walk with calm, with eyes, with shoes,
With fury, with forgetfulness,
Walk, and I cross offices and orthopedic outlet stores,
And patios where laundry hangs on a wire:
Underwear, towels, and shirts weep
Slow obscene tears.

~translated by Barth Anderson