I just added another page to my blog. This one is based on a lecture I gave awhile back, and it is called The Three-Fold Writer’s Path. You can access it from the directory to the right.
Nearby where I live in Portland, Oregon, is the Columbia Gorge, a canyon of great beauty carved by the mighty Columbia River. All along the rim of the gorge flow an abundance of waterfalls and throughout this green, mossy area, there are a series of interconnected trails that are great favorites of people from the city. Each discrete trail leads to a certain waterfall or a specific outlook, and yet the last time I hiked the Gorge this past summer I was fascinated to stop and study a map, etched into a wood sign at a fork in the trail. I could see how the trail I was on intersected with numerous other trails that would lead me to different waterfalls or a new campsite. Separate trails, specific destinations, yet all interconnected.
This is my image of what it takes to master the craft of writing: Every writer sets off on a path that eventually branches into three forks. Each of these forks, or aspects, of writing is a separate discipline, but they are all interconnected. We must explore all the branches of the path in order to become great writers. I define these three paths as story, style, and creativity.
When I originally conceived this article I thought to spend an equal amount of time on each path, but as usual, my ideas morphed as I went along. And so today I’m going to briefly talk about style and story and spend most of the lecture on creativity. Let me start with style. By style I mean all the technical, craft aspects of writing that we must all understand and master: description, viewpoint, characterization, dialogue, scene, etc. The best way to master these techniques is to practice them, of course, but it is also helpful to read about them.
To master craft you choose to read any of the five million books which are written on various aspects of writing. Better yet, just read novels, or short stories, or screenplays, whatever it is that you desire to write. In this program, and in most MFA programs, we require students to write essays on various aspects of writing gleaned from their reading. I think this is an excellent way to teach oneself craft. This may sound really dorky, and it probably is, but to this day, despite the fact I graduated from an MFA program four years ago, I still sometimes do this. If there’s an aspect of craft or technique I want to study further for use in my own work, I sometimes write an essay about it. Or you can just write about it in your journal. You do keep a journal, don’t you?
When I was pulling together my ideas for this talk, I went back and listened to a lecture by one of my former mentors, Melissa Pritchard. She made a great remark about style: “Don’t be cowed by technique. It exists to serve the authenticity of the story.” I love that comment and I think it’s very important to keep in mind. We’ve all had the experience of reading the work of a great stylist, while being bored to tears because of the lack of a story.
So it will come as no surprise that of far more interest to me is story. I consider story to be an element of writing that you must master, even more important than mastering craft. Let’s face it, you can be a master storyteller and a shitty stylist and make buckets of money and if you don’t believe me go talk to Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code. Other examples abound, and you know who they are—all those authors whose books you see on the bestseller list and wonder how they got there. They got there because they are excellent storytellers.
Story is more ethereal, less mechanical than style. If we could bottle the precise components that make a great story, we’d be rich from selling the formula to movie moguls and publishing brass. That said, there are some universal underlying structures to a good story, and you can study and learn these theories of story, and I recommend strongly that you do. Study it, honor it, exalt it—story is your holy grail, your challis, your sacred object. Treat it as such. Some believe that stories are like trains, that if you miss one, its gone—and you’ve lost your chance to bring that story to the world. Melissa Pritchard says that stories come to us for two reasons: because we are the perfect vehicle for presenting them, or because it has something we need, something we must learn, an aspect that will heal us. In many cases both these reasons may be true.
How to learn story? I recommend reading books on screenwriting. Screenwriters are required to tell their story in such a spare, actable way, that they have distilled the art of story to its elemental bones. There are a number of excellent books on how to write a screenplay that will serve you in good stead no matter what kind of writing you want to do—just don’t look to them to teach you much about description. Concurrently, watch movies. Soak them in, look for plot points and mid points and how the filmmakers manipulate dialogue and background and all that. And of course, read. Read when you are on the treadmill, when you are waiting for the soccer game to be finished, when you are in bed at night. Read on the bus, or when you are stuck in traffic, or for an hour in the afternoon when you’d rather zone out and watch TV. If you can’t find time to read, then listen to books on tape or subscribe to Audible.com and put books on your Ipod. You must find a way to be constantly absorbing stories so that when it comes time to write them, you have already absorbed their rhythms and structures in your bones.
But important as style and story are, I believe that the third path, creativity, may be the most vital. After all, you can be the greatest story teller in the world, or a writer of stunning prose. But if you’ve not mastered the discipline of sitting down at the computer or pad of paper, if you’ve not devised a way to get your inner most feelings out onto that paper, than your words will never see the light of day. I believe that the ability to access one’s creativity at will is the bedrock, bottom-line requirement for all writers, and the single most important skill you can develop. And that is what I’m going to focus on today.
Have you ever fallen in love? Deeply, madly, truly in love? That’s what creativity is for me—falling in love with myself and the world over and over again. Creativity has become a sort of buzz word, co-opted by business or used as a catch-all so that you might hear the word and groan instead of giving it the respect it is due. It takes a fierce determination to master the art of writing, to master the commitment to it, and sometimes, for reasons which are unclear to me, such passion in people becomes mocked—perhaps because those without it are jealous. I fear that the whole idea of creativity has been relegated to the realm of the touchy feely, to women sitting around scrapbooking (which, by the way, I have absolutely nothing against), to some sort of weird woo-woo West Coast religion, or worse, something that business can quantify and sell. But nothing could be further than the truth, because the act of creativity, while admittedly mysterious, is also all about the nuts and bolts of getting yourself to just do it.
There are many theories of creativity, some of them so scientific as to make me crazy, others so, well, woo-woo that they aren’t of much use. And it is one of those topics to which you can devote a lifetime of reading and studying and still not master its essence. Because first and foremost creativity is active, not passive. Reading about it or writing about it is one thing. Doing it is quite another. The author Robert Ringer says, “creativity flows from action. Action stimulates your brain cells and gets your creative juices flowing. What actually happens is that when you take action, the atoms in your brain increase the speed of their vibrations, which causes your ‘mental paradigm’ to expand. And when that occurs, you begin to see new ideas, new concepts, and new possibilities that you might not have considered before.”
For me, the path of creativity has two main aspects: Commitment and revelation. The first aspect, commitment, is figuring out how to get your butt planted in the chair, every damn day. The second aspect, revelation, is finding out how to give yourself permission to reveal yourself—for creativity, at its essence, is about sharing yourself with the world.
Why is it sometimes so hard? Why do we desire more than anything in the world to be a writer, and yet sitting down to write repeatedly eludes us? One reason is that in making the commitment to sit down and write you understand that the process is by its very nature revelatory. And what is scarier than revealing oneself to the world? What if said world laughs or sneers or worse yet is indifferent? Adolescence, considered by many the worst time of life, is awful precisely because we are becoming aware of who we are, differentiating from our families, finding our way in the world, and realizing that adulthood takes, at least to a certain extent, being oneself. One must commit to becoming a doctor or an attorney or a writer or an artist and then figure out how to make one’s way in the world. The truly ironic thing, is that being in the flow of creativity, writing so deeply you have no idea how much time has passed, committing my innermost thoughts and ideas to the page, is, to me, the high of highs. It is being so totally in the moment that the moment is timeless and it is euphoric and ebullient—and the last thing in the world you are worrying about is what someone will think. This total absorption is what I crave, which makes it all the more ironic that I resist it.
But because I resist it, I’ve also come up with myriad techniques to help me get to the computer. One thing that is helpful is to identify your personality type. Oriah Mountain Dreamer, in her book on creativity called What We Ache For, tells the story of reading Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones, and being so impressed with the way Natalie goes to cafes and writes. But when Oriah tried it, it simply didn’t work for her—the people distracted her too much. Writing in cafes may suit you just fine, but for the next writer it may be yet another way not to actually write. The key is to experiment and find what works for you.
Another thing to look at is: Are you a procrastinator or are you driven? Creative cycles demand a mixture of focused work and down time, or gestation. This is a very passive state, in which you are marinating all the information in your mind. It is a place of holding the vision, a way of placing the intention that you are not just wasting time, you are germinating. But, if you are like me, this can quickly turn into procrastination.
I procrastinate precisely because I am driven, because once the muse seizes me I want to do nothing but write. I procrastinate not because I fear I have nothing to say, but because I fear I have too much to say. I have a friend in Texas, a cowboy who writes outdoor columns and very, very male articles about hunting and the like. Usually he and I email back and forth several times a day, both of us being writer sitting at computers all day. But last week, we hit a long dry spell where he didn’t write. Finally, after many days of silence, he wrote and explained that he’d gone in, gone deep, and basically done nothing but write for days on end. Because he is a journalist he is used to just doing it, and for him, a days-long concentration on his words is what works. As writers, we all need to find the balance, and it will differ for each one of us.
Another thing that can help is to develop some sort of practice, or a rite, or a ritual or ceremony. Practice yoga, or meditate, or take long walks and ponder your writing. Meditate or pray, casting an intention to have a successful writing session. How can you develop a practice when you already don’t have time to write? These kinds of activities are much like writing—they seem like they are going to be awful, but once you get into them, they are great. They are path-pavers, ways to train your mind and your senses, ways to staunch the constant chatter of voices that tell you the house needs cleaning or the dog hasn’t been fed. Because cultivating stillness is crucial. How else will you hear the still small voice that whispers the motivation of your protagonist or tells you the secret your hero has been withholding?
And practicing anything regularly makes practicing writing easier, too. It’s about creating a mindset that will facilitate creativity, creating an underlying predisposition to accept the challenge of being present with your work. All we ever really have is the current moment. How are you going to spend it? On yet another mindless romp around the internet? Hopping in the car to buy a latte? Flipping through the cable channels? Or engaging with yourself, recording this current moment to share with the world. Remember, its all you have to worry about–this moment, this word, this sentence. “This moment in time when you are imprinting yourself on the page.” Now another and another.
Because expressing yourself on paper in an authentic way doesn’t happen when half your mind is composing a grocery list or worrying when your lover is going to call. To engage with your writing and go deep you need to learn the art of focus and concentration and find a path that will teach you these things. By quieting your mind, allowing the still, small voice to speak, you also afford yourself motivation, a reason to propel yourself forward to the work.
A couple of weeks ago, my hairdresser and I were discussing tattoos. I was telling Sami that my daughter gave me one as a present two years ago, but I’ve not done it because what if I don’t like what I choose five years from now? She told me something that applies to stories, too: she considers her tattoo a reflection of who she was in the moment when she chose it. And even if five years from now, she isn’t over the moon about the image, she can look at it and think oh yeah, that was when I was in my fairy stage. It’s important to remember that stories are a reflection of who we are when we write them, that moment of time when you decided to sit down and share a part of yourself, to create something that didn’t exist before. Think about that—by the simple act of sitting down and putting pen to paper, you create something that didn’t exist before. You create a record of you in the present moment. What more powerful, important act can there be in the world?
Now that you’ve made the commitment and gotten yourself seated before the computer, the blank screen or blank page yawns before you. Perhaps you are not sure what to write. Or perhaps you begin to write and the words feel stilted and superficial.
There are many ways to goose the muse to create ideas. Writing daily in your journal is one. I’ve spoken before about Morning Pages, writing three pages first thing upon rising in the morning before the brain turns on, before the critic engages. Another thing to do is make lists. You can brainstorm, play word games, or do a writing exercise. Don’t sneer—there are many stories and novels alive in the world that started as a writing exercise. I recommend that you collect exercises that work for you either in a file on your computer, or as an ongoing list in the back of your journal, or both. It’s also a good idea to keep lists of topics that you might want to write about some day when you are stuck, and add to it often. See something interesting when you are out walking? Note it in your journal. Hear an interesting snippet of dialogue? Again, write it down. Add to it later. Hear a character name that intrigues you? Write it down. Invent a persona for the name at your next writing session. The best way to approach these writing exercises is the old tried and true free writing—set the timer, move your pen across the paper and don’t stop. Its old, its trite, it’s a cliché, but it works.
Bear in mind that musicians practice scales, artists create mock-ups, architects make models. Every creative activity requires practice and tuning up to stay sharp. Writing exercises are how we writers stay tuned up. Most of the time in my writing life my exercises of choice are journal writing or morning pages. But if I get stuck or feel in a rut, I assign myself writing exercises and do them regularly for awhile until I am back in the flow again. I believe that journal writing, morning pages, or writing exercises are much like practicing meditation or yoga—they keep you limbered up for your “real” writing. And, by the way, I do have a hand out of a variety of exercises and techniques that I’ve collected over the years. Some I’ve made up and some I’ve gotten from books or adapted. Use them as is or adapt them yourself.
The next issue that you might face is the ever dreaded going deeper. (Those of you who have been students of mine have grown familiar with this exhortation written on their manuscripts—go deeper here.) Last week I was having a conversation with a friend who is a poet. We were actually talking about a reading he’s going to be doing and he told me that his challenge is this: How do you continually find the emotion in a piece? He was talking about finding emotion in a poem that he’s read to people many, many times. But this comment struck me because it’s the crux of the matter in all writing. How do you continually find the emotion in a piece?
A CD I was listening to while writing this lecture contains the song, Breathe, by Anna Nalick. As I was writing one day these words jumped out at me: “And I feel like I’m naked in front of a crowd, cuz these words are my diary screaming out loud, and I know that you’ll use them however you want to.” This is the goal of all writing—to be naked on the page and release your words so that the reader can do with them what they will. But being naked requires courage in any situation. It requires that you face the truth about yourself and your imperfections (or maybe even your perfections). It requires going deeper.
To go deeper, start asking yourself questions. What drove me to write this story? Have I faced that yet? Have I developed the courage to really look at the secret that underlies this piece? Is that really true? Is that something I know or imagine or hope to be true? Is that the whole truth? Am I hedging at all? What am I holding back? What don’t I want to write or paint or explore? What am I refusing to risk?
I urge you to compile your own list of questions to continually ask yourself about your writing. Keep it in your journal with your list of topics. But should none of these techniques work and you find yourself really blocked, what do you do then?
I am a great believer in stealing whatever works for my own use and I have a huge weakness for self-help books. Sometimes I also read business books, anything that promises to help me. One of the most recent I read is called Power of an Hour by Dave Lakhani, which attracted me because it promised to teach me the secrets of Fearless Focus. Though I’m not sure that happened, I did glean a good system for dealing with obstacles from the book.
He recommends a four-step process: identifying the obstacle, clearly defining the outcome, creating a road map, and taking action. So, as an example I’ll apply this to a recent block I had. The problem was I knew I needed to write a scene about an argument between a husband and wife, but I didn’t know what the scene should focus on. The outcome I wanted was to create a scene that would show what happened while covering new ground for the reader. The road map I created was to write a list of possibilities of subject matter and taking action was actually writing the scene. I think this works because its like brainstorming, only more structured. Often I come to a block in my work because I sense something isn’t working but I’m not sure what it is. Having a structured process to apply is useful at rooting out what the problem actually is.
Finally, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to find things that sustain you over the long haul and avail yourself of them. When you are in the midst of a long project such as a novel or screenplay, it takes a lot of focused energy to maintain your commitment to it. A helpful notion is that of the Artist’s Date or Mental Vacation. Periodically go off and do something that replenishes you. Visit a gallery, browse in a bookstore, swing at the park. Buy crayons and color, cut out paper dolls, make jewelry. The key to this activity is that it must be chosen with intention. You’re not going off to idly flip through a magazine or see what’s on TV. You’re not going to play five round of Spider Solitaire to see if you can get your stats up. These are what author Jennifer Loudon calls “shadow comforts.” We’re looking for real comforts here, for activities that relax you or inspire you, or maybe both. You are consciously choosing an activity that will allow you to take a break from your work and come back refreshed, perhaps with a new perspective.
In closing I’d like to share a final quote, but first I want to remind you all that all creativity is about sharing who you are with the world. And I want you to start right now, right here, to make a commitment to that. I’d like everyone to take a minute or so and think about what it is you want to write when you leave here today. Take a minute, and write down two or three things. Do it now. Okay, your assignment is to go forth and write. But first I want to share one last quote with you. This is from Melissa Pritchard. “I think this …process of creativity demonstrates how taking your self seriously, and I don’t mean self-consiously or egotistically, by showing commitment and the courage to speak your truth with whatever techniques and tools you’ve acquired to help you shape and manifest, result in a precious gift that heals the receiver as well as the giver.”
This is just awful.
My fabulous new blog network, on which I had two blogs, Powered by Books and Powered by Writing, crashed and burned this afternoon.
They had a power outage for a few hours and somewhere in the midst of that the software completely compromised itself.
These are the nicest people and they spent tons of money for this launch and things were looking really good. And now this.
I’m so bummed.
I’ve gone through and rescued my blog posts from over there and the good news is that now I’ve got tons of new material to post here.
But still, God.
Can’t help but wonder if it’s old Mercury Retrograde striking again. They did the launch a few days before it started, but it still can have a powerful affect. I was thinking of revamping things on this site–deleting my two other writing sites which I never post on and making Word Strumpet Books and Word Strumpet Causes blogs. However, I’m thinking I’ll just wait until Mercury Retrograde is over on that.
In your internet travels, hop on over and check out my new blogs. Looks as if they’ve gotten a lot of material posted over there, its still a start-up which went live only last Monday, so bear that in mind. Think its going to be a good blog network, though. I’ve written a number of posts for them. A girl could spend her whole life posting on blogs, and a good life it would be, too.
My kingdom for a world in which my time was split between writing novels and blogging. But I digress. Here are the links:
Powered by Writing
See you there, see you here…
I’ve been remiss in posting because I’ve been the wee-est bit distracted by the usual suspects–the necessity of making a living (oh, yeah, that).
But I have good news–I am, as of Tuesday, the official new host (hostess?) of two new blogs on the Powered By Everything blog network. I will be the one and only blogger for Powered by Writing and Powered by Books.
I’m kind of excited about this new site. It just went live on Monday and I think it has tons of potential. I like the categories they’ve chosen and the blog posts I’ve read so far have been quite good. Oh yeah, and my friend Suzanne Peters just so happens to be the host of the Powered by Pictures site. So go check it out. And then give it a few more days while we all get our feet wet and go visit again.
Don’t worry, I have no intention of forsaking Strumpet. I’m hoping that the two sites will support and encourage each other and I’ll get tons more readers on all of them.
You may have noticed the large ad for the organization on this blog. I think its a great idea, a way to help other entrepeneurs help themselves. Apparently, we can now lend money to people in Iraq, which is tres cool.
Check out the article and the website.
Typepad has done this amazingly cool thing which allows bloggers to create their own pages now. I’ve been waiting for a feature like this. Truthfully, I haven’t really, because I didn’t know it was possible, being the non-techie type that I am. But I have been trying to figure out where to place some of my longer articles that I’d like to share. I had started another blog for this very purpose, but that turned out to be way too time-consuming. So out go the other blogs and in come new Pages.
Check ’em out. I’ll be putting up more of them over the next few days. You’ll find them, amazingly enough, under the headline "Pages" on the right.
This is an article that talks about the power of story and attempts to define story. The power of story, and how story can even save your life, happens to be one of my favorite topics. I think stories may even be capable of saving the world.
Stories shape our lives. If you are involved in writing a story about something that happened to you, you give it a beginning, middle and end. You make sense of that event and that gives you life meaning. It also gives you knowledge, the ability to take the next step instead of floundering in the dark, the way people who don’t make up stories are doomed to do.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes on writing. It’s from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, which also is one of my favorites on writing. “But take hope for writing is magic. Even the simplest act of writing is almost supernatural, on the borderline with telepathy. Just think: We can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts. The boundaries of space and time and even the limitations of death can be transcended….As writers we travel to other worlds not as mere daydreamers, but as shamans with the magic power to bottle up those worlds and bring them back in the form of stories for other to share. Our stories have the power to heal, to make the world new again, to give people metaphors by which they can better understand their own lives.”
Bear this quote in mind the next time you stop to ponder if story—if what you create every time you sit down at the computer—matters. It’s so important for us to tell our stories, to be the chroniclers of what we see. Remember that someone must shape events to give them meaning, and that task falls to us as writers.
After September 11th, I, like so many others despaired. And that despair encompassed my writing. What value could writing possibly have in the face of such evil? What use was it to create something so intangible as a story, when firemen and police officers risked their lives to save others? I thought and thought about this and finally remembered what my charge as a writer is: to chronicle what I see and feel and hope that I can touch, and possible help, someone who is thinking the same thing. Validation for this came from the fact that the essay I wrote out of this despair was consequently published in a national magazine.
One of my other favorite authors on writing is Robert McKee, whose book called, simply, Story, was immortalized in the movie Adaptation. I have to admit I’ve never gotten all the way through his book—its nearly 500 pages long, full of dense prose, but I’ve read excerpts of it and I’ve gone back to what he says in the first chapter over and over again when my own inspiration flags. Here’s what McKee has to say on story:
“Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life? But the answer eludes us, hiding behind a blur of racing hours as we struggle to fit our means to our dreams, fuse idea with passion, turn desire into reality. We’re swept along on a risk-ridden shuttle through time. If we pull back to grasp pattern and meaning, life, like a Gestalt, does flips: first serious, then comic; static, frantic; meaningful, meaningless. Momentous world events are beyond our control, while personal events, despite all effort to keep our hands on the wheel, more often than not control us.
“Traditionally humankind has sought the answer to Aristotle’s question from the four wisdoms—philosophy, science, religion, art—taking insight from each to blot together a livable meaning. But today who reads Hegel or Kant without an exam to pass? Science, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and perplexity. Religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As our faith in the traditional ideology diminishes, we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of story.”
McKee goes onto talk about our enormous appetite for story in all its forms, TV, movies, novels, memoirs, advertising and says that because of this vast appetite the story arts have become the world’s primary source of inspiration. His comments then degenerate into a rant on dishonest storytelling (James Frey probably should have read his book) and says that when society is awash in shallow, untrue stories, it degenerates. He quotes Yeats, saying, “The center cannot hold.”
I hope that McKee’s comments energize rather than depress you. I think they will when put in the context of another book I recently read, in which the author avows: “The MFA is the new MBA.” My friend Mary-Suzanne got me to read the book just by uttering that sentence from it. Daniel Pink devotes a whole chapter to the importance of story in his book titled A Whole New Mind. His thesis is that it’s a whole new world and this world will be dominated by right-brainers instead of left-brainers, as has traditionally been the case.
He cites the three “As” as harbingers for this shift: Abundance, Asia, and Automation. In a world where we have abundant choices, it’s no longer enough to offer a serviceable product. That serviceable product will compete with many others, and as such, it must either feature a better design or be marketed via a story. Pink says it’s useless to wring our hands over outsourcing to Asia and replacing of jobs with automation. Instead, he says, “We must perform work that overseas knowledge workers can’t do cheaper, that computers can’t perform faster, and that satisfies the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual demands of a prosperous time.” Pink presents six aptitudes that will be essential in this new era: Design, symphony, empathy, play, meaning and…..story. Pink has a whole section titled “The Story Business” in which he not only profiles Robert McKee but calculates that story is worth about a trillion dollars a year to the US economy. (This is based on his calculation that persuasion in the forms of advertising, counseling consulting, etc., accounts for 25 percent of the gross national product. If story is an element of at least half those efforts, than you get the one trillion figure)
He talks about how organizations are now hiring people to chart the storytelling culture of their businesses and cites other examples to buttress his argument that storytellers are the new MBAers. Of course, all of us know the value of story of we wouldn’t be sitting here trying to figure out how to write them. So now that we’ve taken a look at the overall theory of story and its importance in our modern world, let’s get down to defining them. Which, like all things related to story, is more difficult than it would seem. We can start by defining them by word count.
The science fiction and mystery writer Kate Wilhelm, who has written a fine book on writing titled, Storyteller, says that in the genres, short stories can’t top out any longer than 7500 words, but I’ve read others who say stories can go as high as 10,000 words (which greatly relieves me as my stories tend to be long which is why I prefer writing novels). Wilhelm also says that a novelette is between 7500 words to 15,000, a novella from 15,000 to 40,000 and a novel is 40,000 words and up. The standard word per page count has always been 250 words per page. These days, with different fonts and typefaces, it’s all over, but if we use that standard we can get some approximate page counts.
Assuming the short story is in the 7500 to 10000 word range, that puts as at the 30 to 40 page range for the maximum length of a short story and that sounds about right to me. But beyond length are there any other qualities that define a story? You could write a character sketch 30 pages long, or an extended anecdote and it still wouldn’t be a story. The definition of story may ultimately be similar to the famous old saw about art: I don’t exactly what it is but I know it when I see it. You know it in your gut, right?
We could actually sit around and debate this all afternoon, so here’s a couple definitions for you to chew on while we move on. Research on the internet netted me this one from someone named Alex Keegan: “It is something that can be read in one sitting and brings a singular illumination to the reader, sudden and golden like sunlight cracking through heavy cloud.” Katrina Kenison, who has edited the Best American Short Story series for years, says the guiding light by which she did her work was the following, defined by an editor named Martha Foley many years ago: “A good story is a story which is not too long and which gives the reader the feeling he has undergone a memorable experience.” Wilhelm defines a short story thusly: “A successful short story is a marvel of compression, nuance, inference and suggestion. If a novel invites one to enter another world, the short story invites one to peer through a peephole into the world, and yet the world has to have the same reality as in a novel. It is truly the universe in a grain of sand.”
Perhaps we can start to come up with some elements of a short story. Keegan says a story illuminates one facet of human nature. A character undergoes some event and experiences something which offers him change. I think “offers” the chance to change is a key word here—because in a short story, your character might not change, but he must be given the opportunity to do so. Rust Hills, who was the editor at Esquire for years and has written a book on short story writing, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular talks of “the loss of the last chance to change” and whether or not a character accepts that chance or declines it. Hills says a character must change in some way over the course of a story, even if that change is subtle. A character can be presented with an opportunity to change and not take it—and the reader understands that this will be his last chance. By not choosing, he is choosing.
No redundancies, no flashbacks, no applying novelistic techniques to the short story. A story must have a moment of truth—or what Rust Hills calls the last chance to change. Something important must be at stake for the characters, there must be moment of truth, and someone has to react to it. This is the difference between an anecdote or a character sketch and short story—it has that moment of truth.
Of course, whether you are going to write a short story or a novel, you have to know how to tell a story, which is the underlying theme of this essay. And whether you are creating a big world for a novel or a little world for a short story, there are some basic tools you can use to help you create those worlds.
First is the story question, the all-important question that guides the entire story or novel or screenplay. What is it that the protagonist wants so badly that she will risk everything to get? This is your north star. After writing my first novel, which I’m still writing, and struggling with issues of structure and an unclear story question, I vowed never, ever to write a novel or a short story without a clear and compelling story question. My most recent novel had one, and any time I got lost in the plotting or the storytelling all I had to do was return to it and I could easily get myself back on track.
Here’s a simple way to design a story question: A LIKEABLE CHARACTER overcomes INSUPERABLE ODDS and BY HIS OR HER OWN EFFORTS achieves a WORTHWHILE GOAL.
Another way to think about it is: Will (protagonist) (verb) despite the efforts of the antagonist? Note the simple idea that this means the character must want something. We all know what the most important element of a story is, right? Conflict. There’s no story without conflict. How do you create conflict? By having your character want something and not allowing him to get it. That simple, that complicated. It’s at the heart of every great story and the more conflict you can give a character, the better. The late Kurt Vonnegut said, “Have you characters want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.”
How many of you have had the experience of being deeply touched by a piece of writing? I’d venture to guess all of you, or you wouldn’t desire to be a writer yourself. Think of how that emotional moment changed you, if even for a minute. What a powerful, wonderful thing the written word is and how damned lucky we are to worship at its gates. Next time you are sitting at your computer and the words refuse to come, remember this and be grateful that you are a writer. And furthermore, remember that the very act of writing is not only saving a life (perhaps your very own!) but it is also actively saving the world.
I’m working on an assignment about global warming.
As my sister would say, Geezus.
This is scary stuff. I’ve already been reduced to running around the house turning off lights and asking my son to show me how to change the air filter in the car (changing it monthly can save 800 pounds of carbon dioxide from spewing into the air a year. And it that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will: it will also save you $130 a year in cold, hard cash.)
I said this post was only tangentially related to writing, but in a way that’s not true.
Global warming is related to everything. Because if we don’t deal with it now, everything is going to get pretty miserable in the next 50 years.
Now excuse me while I go turn out some more lights.
PS. Tomorrow I’m going to start a list of links to some great organizations with tons of information on global warming. It’ll be worth your while to check them out.