Tag Archives: How-to

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: 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: Face the Shadow

1 May
NyxPergamonZA

Nyx, Goddess of Night; the Altar of Zeus ~200 BCE

Consider parts of your life-story that you never tell.

You don’t often think about your story when you tell it, because, really, why should you? If someone asks you your heritage, where your family is from, how many brothers and sisters you have, what your parents are like, who your grandparents were, those stories come spilling out fast-fast, without much thought. You tell it the same way with the same rhythms, the same half-smile on your face. And why not? You’ve told those stories the same way your whole life. It’s not like your story ever changes, and, anyway, it’s often a pleasure to relate such stories. Especially to writers like you.

But when people ask you about yourself, you deliberately avoid certain chapters, too. You have to. The person you didn’t marry. The career path you had to forego. A character from your past that you refuse to discuss. These parts of your story are “too much information,” you’ve learned. Offensive.

In this process, you are like Jehovah dividing the world into Night and Day, shedding your personal light on a very small number of scenes while relegating most of your life to night and shadow. When I say “shadow,” I’m talking about the moral need to bring order to one’s life, to deny unwanted aspects of yourself while “promoting” aspects you admire. Carl Jung called this part of ourselves “Shadow,” and he knew what he was talking about. It’s not a bad thing. One must make necessary, moral decisions when concocting a face for the civilized world.

And yet, that process is akin to lying. It’s a lie by omission like creating nothing but clean-white portraits in a clean-white space and spending your days airbrushing out blemishes. That might make a nifty business practice but artists consider the unconsidered. She’s willing to look at pain, her own, she shares it, doesn’t look away, and makes something beautiful from her hurt.

I can tell you as someone who has spent nearly my entire life eclipsed by one of my parents’ dense, dark Shadows that the process Jung describes is totally understandable, at times forgivable, all-too-human, and, yet, so bewildering it’s horrifying. It’s not easy or pleasant, but the Shadow is a human fact. And considering the undesirable , unwanted parts of being human is what writers and artists do.

So consider the shadows of your life while reading my posts in the “Make a Story” series. I challenge you to consider moments in your life that you believe don’t fit into your life-story.

Before jumping into the Writing Prompts below, come up with three stories/scenes from your life that might make good material but which you don’t usually tell about yourself. Give them three quick easy titles for easy reference. Don’t worry, I won’t make you write them out! But I will ask you to play with these scenes.

WRITING PROMPT #1: Without telling the actual stories themselves, write 500 words as fast as you can about what themes you see in these three scenes. What dynamics are similar in them? Do they match up with other themes in your life-story? How do you feel when you consider writing these scenes and how hard would it be to include them in your life-story? Write 500 words. Keep your hand/fingers moving. Don’t stop until the word count is met.

Writing Prompt #2: Choose one the three scenes. Pretend it’s a scene in an excellent movie and you are writing a review of it. Describe how the actor(s) nailed it. Describe how the cinematographer shot it to make it so sad, harrowing, or passionate. How was it edited to make such an effective sequence? Be inventive. Have fun with your imaginary movie. Do this for all three scenes, if you like. Write 500 words. Keep your hand/fingers moving. Don’t stop until the word count is met.

Writing Prompt 3: Choose a symbol for each scene. Choose three hard, bold images that appeal to you and write them down or find photos and place them on note cards. Pin the cards over your writing space. Maybe you won’t include the actual scenes, but perhaps these symbols will appear in your irresistible pages, resonating in your skeleton and bear cosmic meaning for you and you alone.

For now.

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.

Make Your Story: Flashbacks

28 Apr

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.

Consider your flashbacks.

Your life-story isn’t one long flashback. It’s a narrative that incorporates a handful of flashbacks to create a particular dramatic effect of your choosing.

When you look at old pictures of someone you didn’t know twenty years ago, this dramatic effect is instant, often comical. You see them in funny haircuts and wildly different clothes. Their cosmetic game is entirely different. On point, but – wow. The effect is jarring because you know them as one person, but two decades earlier, they were someone you barely recognize.

This is elemental storytelling 101. Storytelling is change. A character was this, but then they became that. Flashbacks perform this change instantaneously while also setting up further plot-points, for greater change down the line. Dramatic gas for multiple storytelling engines: flashbacks.

But more than a fun costume change, a well-considered flashback can be used to drop your life-story’s main character right into boiling water. That’s a stronger dramatic effect than the reader seeing you in acid-wash jeans and a mullet: The character we’ve come to identify with was in trouble as a kid. That’s going to cut closer to the reader’s heart.

And yours.

What was “the boiling water” when you were twelve? When you were four? What made that water so dangerous and hot to begin with? Why in the world was a four-year-old thrown into boiling water? Who did that to you? Who tried to help? Why couldn’t they stop it? Why didn’t you perish? What was the fallout from that horrible scene?

The answers to those questions will create dramatic tension/contrast with the main narrative of your life-story.

You don’t have to flashback to agony and pain, of course, but whatever mood you set up in the main narrative should be contrasted in flashback. If it’s a humorous story in the “now,” then maybe the flashback should show something somber. If the mood is dour in the now, consider flashbacking to color and a dance of emotion.

The worst thing you can do with a flashback is make a static image of yourself that makes the flashback stand as a prop, an old-fashioned jacket that doesn’t get worn and has no effect, dramatic or aesthetic, on the story as a whole. This is a kind of forgetfulness on your part, letting the memory of a memory stand in for actual observation from you as a writer. To avoid this, you need to see yourself in the past the way you see yourself now, someone faced with possibilities and choices — yes, even as a child you had choices. Previous choices will make flashbacks dance. Consider those around you if you are remembering a time when you were very young. The people around you-as-a-child had thousands of choices to make that had a bearing on what you became, the choices you eventually made when you were older. They might have more to do with you than you realize, even if you think you know your story.

Exercise time:

Consider a flashback scene. Consider a time when you were very young. But rather than writing from the point of view of you as a child, write it from the angle of someone near you, back then. Drop yourself into a fierce, sharp, or passionate agenda of someone responsible for you. Or opposed to you. Account for that character’s agenda in your scene. If they are a villain, make them villainous, but make them round and believable with tone and realness. 500 words. Keep your pen/keyboard moving. Go.

lethe

Gustav Dore, “Dante Submerged in the River Lethe”