WHERE DO IDEAS COME FROM?

A while back, in one of my first posts, I mentioned hearing a bird in the forest near our wilderness resort.  A bird we could never locate and always wondered about.  After the resort was sold and we’d moved closer to town and were preparing to build a house, we went to a home show looking for ideas.

As we entered, we  heard that bird.  We looked at each other and, moving as one person, almost ran to the booth that we believed had a bird in a cage.  Perhaps they sold bird cages.  Or had a garden theme.  We didn’t know, we just knew we were about to finally… finally… find out what kind of bird made that sound.

It wasn’t a bird.  It was a cougar.  It was tame and in a cage where it couldn’t harm anyone.  But the feeling I got upon realizing that a cougar had been nearby when I walked in the forest was something I’ll never forget.

I breathed a prayer of thanks to the two large dogs who always accompanied me when I took walks in the woods.  I never asked them to come, they just did, ambling under the trees.  And keeping me safe even when I didn’t know I needed protecting.

So now comes the point of this post.  That experience… the emotion I felt when I learned I’d possibly been stalked by a cougar… became my novella Wanted:  Sharpshooter.

As I wrote, the feelings just gushed out.  Even though I’d not been afraid during all those years of walking in the forest, I knew what that kind of fear would have been like because of the sheer terror that went along my spine for a brief moment when i saw that tame cougar in the home show.

But Wanted:  Sharpshooter isn’t my only book based on experience.  I find that everything I write is based on something that has happened.   And I also find that there is no limit to the experiences that fuel my imagination and in some manner become the stories I write.

So what inspires you?  Where does the inspiration for your stories come from?  Experience?  Pure imagination?  Something you read or hear about in the media?  A dream that is so vivid you must get it written down?

Let me know.  I’m curious.

ARCHETYPE OR STEREOTYPE?

Earlier today a writer mentioned a problem coming up with good characters.  His main concern was to not create characters that are stereotypes.  I can understand his concern.  As a writer, I’ve been warned over and over again of the terrible things that will befall my manuscript if I should breathe life into a character that… horror of horrors!… is a stereotype.  Archetypes, on the other hand, are wonderful and to be admired because they illuminate characteristics common to Everyman.  Archetypes, not stereotypes.  That’s the rule.

I have a problem with that rule.  Maybe it’s me.  I generally don’t like rules and maybe I’m not like other writers.  But I suspect I’m pretty much like almost everyone else.

I am, however, honest enough to question whether there is a difference between a stereotype and an archetype.  I’m fairly certain they are one and the same thing.

Think about it.  Both stereotypes and archetypes personify stock characters… people we know in real life and recognize in a story after just a brief description.  The only difference is in the words used and that’s a personal choice for every writer.  Some readers like some words better than others and when they don’t like the words used, they may decide the character being described is a stereotype and, therefore, a negative.

Want to know what I think?  I think you shouldn’t worry about it.  Just tell the story.  If your characters turn out to be familiar, recognizable people, good for you.  And if someone tells you that a particular character is a stereotype, reply that, no indeed, that character is an archetype.  You will be telling the truth.  Because, in the end, they are the same.

TONE

There’s been a discussion lately among some writers I know about ‘tone.’  Specifically, the tone required by confession stories.  The discussion didn’t progress very far before I felt completely overwhelmed.  Because when I write, I just write.  I think about how to best tell the story and how best to convey that to the reader.  And that’s about it.  Maybe I’ve been lucky that I hit it enough of the time that people read what I wrote.

But tone is important, I know that.  Furthermore, I also know that it differs from one genre to another.  Read a couple high fantasy stories and you’ll know what I’m talking about.  If you didn’t understand the tone of high fantasy, you might think you were reading something by one of Chaucer’s contemporaries.  Which is completely different from the tone of a hard-boiled private eye novel.  Or a Regency romance.  Or a confession story.

So what is tone?

After the discussion, I did some thinking and realized that I’ve always known subconsciously what it was.  It’s what’s between the words of every well-written story.  It’s not actual description but it lets the reader know what the setting and characters are like.  It’s not dialogue but it can and often does dictate how the characters speak.  It doesn’t tell the story, but it’s in every scene, often unnoticed, complementing and explaining and interpreting but not interfering. with the actual story-telling

Its importance cannot be overstated.  Without it, readers will turn away in droves because, as much as the story… sometimes even more… tone is what readers want.  Why they really read.  What they are looking for.  Because it’s the feeling they will take with them after the story is finished.

Let me give an example.  Is a ghost story best told during a Sunday picnic in the middle of the day in the midst of a few hundred laughing guests… or around a campfire in a remote forest with no moon and dark clouds scudding across the sky tossing treetops awry?  If you choose that night-time setting and put it together with the creepy, softly scary voice in which campfire tales are best told, you have tone.  It’s the thing listeners will remember long after they’ve forgotten the story itself.

So that’s what tone really is.  Not the story.  Not the characters.  Not the description.  Not the dialogue.  It’s the way the writer puts all of those things together in way that makes the reader feel the story.  And isn’t that what we as writers hope will happen every time we write?

WORKING WRITER TIP… MIDDLES

First, a bit of housekeeping.  I have the feeling I’ve not got a lot more working writer tips in me. At least, not for the time being.  I admit I’m amazed how many tips I remember when I sit down and try to think what has helped me over the years.  Still…. not so many have popped into my mind lately so, if I’m not nearing the end, I am at least slowing down a bit.  With that in mind, I have decided to drop back to posting twice a month.  On or about the beginning and the middle of each month.

 But for now there’s a lot to be said for middles.  You know, that part of every story that writers hate because middles often end up boring readers.  Great beginnings and wonderful endings.  Middles, not so glorious.

 I must admit that I skip a lot when I read.  The boring stuff.  Description.  Telling not showing.  And middles if they are boring and don’t seem to add to the story.  Which often, they don’t.

 There’s a way to deal with those boring, saggy middles that I kind of figured out for myself.  It happened during a ‘eureka’ moment after I read a definition of a story.  Now, there are lots of definitions but, for the purpose of interesting middles, this is the one that led to that eureka moment and remains the one I prefer:  A story follows a group of characters through a situation to a conclusion and, during the trip, at least one character changes.

 It’s the part about one or more character changing that has to do with middles because that change takes place during the middle of the story.  So the key to middles that are not boring and can be riveting is to show the change.  You, the writer, are in charge of whatever it is that changes your characters and it’s that change that makes the middle worth reading.

 This isn’t a writing technique in the sense that it tells you how to fiddle with words.  Instead it’s a head thing, a way of thinking that you mentally assume whenever you sit down and begin writing. As you write, keep in mind what change must happen to each character before the end of the story.  And think about how that change can best be wrought.  Because if you are thinking about that change, then it will show up in each and every scene.  And that will make your middles interesting and your stories page-turners.

WORKING WRITER TIP… THE EASY WAY TO ORGANIZE

Autumn has arrived in the north country.  It’s not the peak of the colors, that’ll come in three weeks or so.  But there’s enough color in the landscape to know summer is ending.  And the nights are sometimes downright cold, even freezing. 

You’d think all this praise for autumn would mean it’s my favorite season.  Nope.  Not true.  That’s reserved for winter.  Yes, winter, that white time of year when the temperature can and does drop below zero by thirty, even forty degrees.  Even more surprising, it’s my favorite season in spite of the fact that I’m allergic to cold.  (Yes, really, I break out in hives.)

Why so much praise for autumn, and why is my favorite season the only one in which I spend much of my time inside? It’s my favorite because I spend so much time inside.  Because life slows down then.  Because there are fewer social obligations. 

It’s my favorite because I can write in the winter.  And write.  And write.  And write some more.

So the question becomes… what to write during all those wonderful, quiet winter hours?  That’s where autumn comes in.  Because it’s the time of year when all things come to fruition, thus clearing the way for whatever comes next. 

Every autumn I take stock of the accomplishments of the past year and plan ahead to the next one.  It’s when I make course corrections or change course entirely.  When I decide what about my writing is working and what isn’t.  So that when winter and all those hours of useful silence arrive, I’ll be ready.

This is something every writer should do once a year.  Not necessarily in the autumn but sometime.  Most people instinctively know this.  The problem is, many simply don’t do it.

Do it.  Make the time.  Because it’s the easiest way I know to organize your mind, your work and your writing.  Once a year go wherever you go or do whatever you do when you need to think.   Don’t bring any pieces of paper, or lists because there should be nothing between you and your thoughts.  You’ll be amazed how things will fall into place and your career path will become clear. 

Then put the seat of your pants on the seat of your chair and see how much you can achieve.

WORKING WRITER TIP… THE MENTAL ASPECT OF WRITING

Some time ago, I purchased a book on writing fiction.  Not my first such purchase by any means, but the blurb for this book intrigued me because it promised to teach me how to write fiction.  So I sent for the book and when it arrived I read it cover to cover.

There wasn’t much about the craft of fiction writing in the book.  Less than half, maybe only a third.  The rest of the book was about meditation.

How to meditate. When to meditate.  How often to meditate.  And what should happen inside my mind during and after meditation.  I followed the instructions carefully, though with skepticism.  I’ve always believed in the power of taking a few minutes sometime during the day and just dong nothing.  Relaxing.  Napping.  Sipping tea.  Anything.   But meditation?  Come on now!  But I tried it.

 I soon learned that I simply cannot close my eyes and think about nothing.  No matter how hard I try, no matter how many mantras I repeat, no matter how many fluffy, pink clouds I visualize.  I can’t do it.  I just can’t. 

But I got what the author of that book was trying to tell me.  That writing begins in the mind.  In the thoughts of the writer.  If those thoughts are muddy and confused and skittering every which way without focus or center or purpose, then the end result will also be muddy, confused and lacking focus, center or purpose. 

It’s a sad fact that sometimes the harder we writers try to write, if we try too hard, then instead of focusing better on what we’re doing, we actually lose focus and our writing suffers.

When this happens, take a break. 

If you can meditate, do so.  If you’re like me, get up out of the chair, leave the room, get as far away from writing as possible and do whatever relaxes you, be it gardening, painting, shopping or whatever.  And don’t return to that chair until every single mental cobweb is gone and your mind is sharp and focused and you know… you don’t just think, you know … what you want to tell your readers.

Doing this isn’t being lazy.  It’s not unprofessional.  It’s a professional answer to a common problem, and you will end up spending fewer hours writing than you would have spent if you forced yourself to do something when your mind wasn’t there.

WORKING WRITER TIP… STORYBOARDING WITHOUT THE BOARD

Ever watch ‘House‘ on TV with Hugh Laurie playing the part of a brilliant diagnostician?  We do.  My husband watches the clock during the show.  Approximately 48 minutes into the show, he’ll announce that it’s epiphany time so House will shortly diagnose this week’s mysterious disease.  It happens just as he predicts.  Every time.  Because House is plotted on a storyboard.

What’s a storyboard?  Picture a calendar without numbers. That’s a storyboard.  (What follows is what you’d do if you were using an actual, physical storyboard.  We’re not using the board here so don’t actually do anything, just read so you’ll know how a storyboard works.  It’s kind of neat.  Then I’ll show you how to storyboard without the board and you might want to try that.)

Change the calander… the storyboard…  to fit the length of the story you are writing.  A short story should have only one line on it so block out the rest.  A really long novel, over 50,000 words, requires that you add extra lines to the bottom so it’ll look like a month with six or eight weeks in it.  And a calendar of six-day weeks works best.  When finished, you’ll have a storyboard that’s perfect for the story you will tell.

In the first box, write ‘beginning’ and in the last box write ‘conclusion.’  In the boxes at the ends of each line, (the ones that would be Saturday on a calendar) write ‘significant event’.  Then scribble in what happens in those scenes, the significant events being whatever changes the direction of the story.  A couple of boxes before the ‘conclusion’ box, write ‘climax.’ and scribble  in what happens in those scenes.  Then fill in the rest of the empty boxes, the ones leading up to the boxes that would be Saturday on a calendar.   And that’s how storyboards work.  They schedule the actions of a story and that schedule avoids long, boring stretches and puts the climax where it belongs,near the end. 

This works wonderfully for TV programs with allotted times and for books with required word counts.  But not every story is best told in precisely measured increments.  With e-publishing, word counts are irrelevant.  A story can have however many words are needed to tell the story. But you don’t want it to become boring, so the concept of storyboarding is still valid. So the question is, how do you use the good parts of storyboarding without having to also deal with those parts that aren’t useful to your story?

  The answer is to use a computer, that neat writing instrument that allows you to insert stuff wherever you choose.  So… open your computer, start a new file and write ‘beginning’ on the first line (beneath the title of the story).  On the line beneath that, write ‘climax’ and below that another line labeled ‘conclusion.’ 

Between the beginning and the climax, insert as many significant events as needed and label each one ‘significant event’, making  sure they build towards the conclusion.  It’s a good idea to use a different color ink when you do this, or italics or some type that’s easily noticeable.  Because the next thing you’re going to do is insert more scenes and you don’t want your significant events to get lost.

So now it’s time to insert whatever scenes lead up to each significant event, keeping in mind that the last significant event must lead immediately to the climax and that will lead immediately to the conclusion so don’t put any scenes between the last significant event and the conclusion.

Done?  Good.  Now look over your outline.  Are there more than five scenes leading up to any significant event?  If so, eliminate some or shift them to another part of the story because that’ll be too many scenes and will bore your reader and is what storyboarding, with their limited number of boxes, is designed to avoid.

If you do these things, you will have storyboarded a story that will not bore your readers and that will build to a satisfying climax and conclusion, and you’ll have done it without using a board and without the restrictions of time or word count requirements

Working Writer Tip: Endings

Once, because I was getting a student straight from the jungles of Laos, I was given a crash course in southeast Asian culture.  I learned that in that part of the world the worst insult a person can bestow on another is to touch the top of their head. Similar to giving someone the finger in the USA. 

The father of my future student told me that he was learning our culture by reading anything and everything he could get his hands on.   When he said that, an alarm went off in my head because a few days earlier I’d attended a writers’ workshop in which a student had read a story he’d written.

It was about a boy who was staying with his grandparents.  He and his gruff grandfather didn’t get along except when they went fishing and joined forces to catch the huge trout that had eluded the grandfather for years.  On the last day of the visit the boy hooked the trout and there followed a classic battle that ended with the trout getting away.  In the face of this disappointment, the boy and his grandfather silently gathered their equipment and headed for the house.  Halfway there, the grandfather, without speaking, removed the boy’s cap and ruffled his hair.  And that was the end of the story.

Most Americans reading that ending would know that the grandfather ruffling the boy’s hair was a sign of love and would see familial love as the theme of the story.  But I wonder what that Laotian father with his different cultural background would have got from that particular ending.

Endings matter.  If you want your reader to take something away from your story, don’t hide it too deeply or they might miss it completely.   So how do you create an ending that’ll let the reader take away from your story what you want them to take?  You think about the reader and what you want him or her to take away from your story.

If you want your reader to come away with a specific, very detailed life lesson, then give them an ending with that specific, very detailed lesson embedded in it.  If you want your story to become a springboard for the imagination,  then make sure there are blanks that your readers can fill in themselves.

About the story of the boy and his grandfather?  I’ve often wondered if that writer would  have written a different ending if he’d known his story would be read by someone from southeast Asia.  If I ever run into him again, I’m going to ask.

Working Writer Tip: About Beginnings

I made baskets yesterday, demonstrating the coiled basket technique as my part of advertising a farmers’ market we belong to.  When I do this I’m always surprised at the interest people show in simple grass baskets.  And they all want to know what it will look like when it’s finished. 

 I tell them they can imagine what the finished basket will look like by examining the beginning, that tiny circle of tightly-wrapped grass in the center of the bottom of the basket that is the beginning of the coils that circle around and around that small middle before gently curving upwards to form sides until enough height is achieved and a basket is made.  Whenever I tell them this, they carefully examine the center of the basket bottom and nod their heads.  Yes, they say, they can see the finished product in that small beginning.

 Same with fiction. 

 When you write a story, you make a contract with your reader.  The beginning of the story contains the terms of the contract.. The first sentence.  The first paragraph.  At least the first page.  The end of the story should be an emotional sense of the fulfillment of that contract.

 When you write a story, make a promise to your reader.  An  honest contract.  Whatever method you use to lay out your story, make sure you connect the end to the beginning.  It doesn’t have to be obvious to the reader (and shouldn’t be for some stories) but it should be as easy for you, the writer, to see the connection as it is for any casual visitor to the farmers’ market to follow the end of the coil back to that first tightly wound knot that was the beginning of a basket.

 If it isn’t, then try harder.  Redo your beginning.  Change it completely.  Do something.  Your story will be better for it, and your readers will hopefully read your next story because they will know they can trust you to make a contract with them in the beginning that will be  fulfilled in the end.

Guess What, I’m A Confession Writer

 No working writer tip today.  Instead, I’m answering a question  related to last week’s tip on how to easily get into a main character’s head and write that deep, deep POV story.

How, I was asked, did I learn that writing in first person is the easy way to a character’s heart, especially since first person POV is frowned upon in many kinds of stories and by many print publishers?  What conference did I attend that gave me this helpful tip?  Or was it an article I read?  Or, perhaps, did another writer whisper for me to try it as we passed in the hallway at a writers’ retreat?   Well…. um…. actually….none of those ways.

I learned by doing because I wanted to make a living as a writer and I believed the best place to start was with short fiction.  So, when I was given a dog-eared, out-of-date copy of the writers’ bible, the Writer’s Guide, I studied it more thoroughly than I’d ever studied for any final and any class I can remember. 

I learned that, while the payment for confession fiction didn’t equal that of major magazines, confession magazines don’t print the author’s name.  That little fact means that they don’t care how famous or infamous the author is.  And they don’t care how many times an author’s work is printed in their magazines.  So any writer, even a newbie like me, could sell and sell and sell stories to confession magazines.  As many other confession writers, I’ve had as many as three stories published in the same magazine. 

As an aside, you’d be surprised how many major romance novelist names you’d recognize if writer’s names were printed beneath the story title in any confession magazine.  It’s a great way to pick up a couple hundred bucks between novels while experiencing a slightly different kind of writing.

This pertains to first person, deep POV how, you ask?  Simple.  The one requirement of confession writing is that it be in first person.  Period.  Can be male or female, old or young, main or minor character.  Anything goes as long as it’s in first person.  So I learned to write in first person. 

In doing so, I gradually came to realize that by going deep into my character’s mind and emotions, I was naturally writing in that deep, deep POV that is a goal for many kinds of fiction.  Naturally.  Easily.  Without charts or diagrams with lines going from one character to another and back in order to correctly guage one character’s reaction to whatever or writing pages of background describing each character so I’d know how to portray them.  Nothing of the kind.  I just put myself into the mindset of my main character and let him/her tell the story in any way he/she chose.

 I still do it.  It works every time.