Tag Archives: Writing

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: 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.

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: Typing the Truth

30 Apr

Consider that your life-story isn’t a bee-line.

It’s at least four stories told in concert whose voices, if executed well, will surge and sing out at different points like four-part harmony or four-piece jazz with solos.

One of these storylines could be very old, maybe a previous generation’s that carries through to your present story. If you choose correctly, this one will act as a firm thumping bassline throughout, one that you (and your audience) will return to often because the past is crucial evidence about you. It needn’t be ancient but it would be best if it were open-ended, unfinished, and not a flashback.

Which old story will you choose?

Is it your birth story? How your family came to live where you were born? Why you are named what you’re named? An ancestor’s decision still echoing in your life now? A story only you know? A secret or a lie or a still-secret lie? Could you do that? Make that secret lie known? Make it part of your story?

WRITING PROMPT #1: Write your birth story or story behind your name so that the last line of your writing ends with, “…and that’s how I came to be sitting here typing these words.”

WRITING PROMPT #2: 500 words. Write the most dangerous truth you have ever written. The one that could destroy lives. Don’t hold back for fear of offending or betraying or hurting anyone else. Type it. Then delete your writing or burn it it if you want to.

Or begin your memoir from there.

veritas

Raffaele Monti’s “Under the Veil” of Veritas, Roman Goddess of Truth. Destroyed 1936.

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: Make Your Hero

29 Apr

Consider heroism.

Do you grasp your heroism already or are you writing in order to catch a glimpse of it? Either way is good. Just be aware which is you before you start writing.

Be aware that tracking a plot isn’t enough to describe a “hero’s journey,” and rising from nothing isn’t in itself heroic. Exemplary, yes. Brave. But heroism is a trait, not a journey, and I don’t think Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell are correct that killing the dragon is enough to be a hero. Many people, kindly grandfathers and selfish douchebags alike, can and should take rightful action to save their own skins.

It’s why someone kills a dragon that matters. Heroes act out of compassion. Heroes are generous. They give it all away to kill that dragon.

It’s important to point this out because the “lowest common denominator” approach to defining heroic status in the wake of Joseph Campbell’s and Carl Jung’s theories about heroism don’t serve narrative or memoir well. The Jungian formula is “You did a thing you were anxious about = You ARE Heroic.”

Now if that’s personally meaningful to you, I approve. That matters. To you.

But when it comes to telling a life-story, you must face the reality that you are opening such a claim to scrutiny. Some say self-sacrifice makes a hero, not just facing dragons. Some say audacious acts of bravery in the face of superior numbers make a hero. Don’t be surprised if many readers are skeptical or simply don’t agree that your story’s protagonist is heroic simply because you’re using the “hero’s journey” as a format.

So consider some questions before you begin.

Am I a hero or a protagonist in my own story? Am I willing to cast myself as “un-heroic”? Am I aiming for realism or heroism?

If you gave your hero a motto, what would it be? Is your heroic motto validated by the story’s end, or will the hero exchange it for another after the climax? Who “wins” in your story: the hero’s motto, the hero, or the world?

Arrange some of the stories/scenes that you want to relate in your life-story on note cards or on a spreadsheet. Divide them up in three piles/sections: SHOWS COMPASSION; SHOWS SELFISHNESS; HAS REVELATION. Does your protagonist seem heroic to you? What do your hero’s revelation/revelations consist of? What is this hero’s particular journey about? Is heroism a status that your character wishes to receive? Do you wish it for your character (who is you)? Why?

Why are you writing this story? Do you have something to give by telling it? Is it, in and of itself, an act of self-sacrifice? Is telling it a heroic act? A gift?

You are always the protagonist in your own story, but are you the real hero of it? Imagine for a minute, it’s not you. Who is the true hero? Who has acted so heroically that you would not be you without their generosity, bravery, audaciousness?

WRITING PROMPT. 500 words right now. Choose one. Or keep writing and use all three. (1) Describe a personal anecdote in which you came off as selfish, egotistical. (2) Describe a personal anecdote in which you showed generosity and were exceedingly selfless. (3) Describe a scene in which someone else acted “heroically” for you.

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. 

hero

Make Your Hero