READING is the flip side of writing. Every author, teacher, or writing coach worth their salt will suggest you read widely in your genre if you want to publish—Stephen King* not least among them! We’ll say this (often) because we know you’ll learn as much about structure and style from considering how your favorite authors artfully construct their stories as you will from even the most instructive books about the writing craft.
Further, reading—in one’s genre or out of it—reliably restocks our pond of creativity, so that, when we go angling for new ideas and approaches, there are always plenty of fish to choose from.
Also, as poet W. H. Auden is reported to have said, “We read to learn more of what it means to be human.” And it does seem that often we are—consciously or unconsciously—seeking wisdom of some sort when we pick up a book.
USED TO BE, I’D FIND GREAT STORY IDEAS in the newspaper that got tossed at my door each morning. Recently, though, I haven’t even had to get out of bed to gather inspirational goodness. That’s because a couple of bloggers have been delivering fresh literary fodder to my inbox on the regular. Here are two such ideas. Either could blast a humdrum story out of its complacency!
1) Inventing narratives
Hip biz guru Seth Godin wrote recently aboutinventing narratives. He said, That story in your head? It’s invented. It has to be. It might be based on some things that actually happened…. But it can’t possibly be a complete and detailed understanding of everything.
Seth sees this creative interpretation as problematic. That’s because Seth is not a novelist! Novelists are probably especially prone to inventing narratives—and probably particularly good at it! They might tell stories about everyday occurrences, family history, or the big issues life flings at us. For instance, a novelist could make up a story to explain the behavior of someone who snatched a parking spot from her, the reasons her parents favor her sister, or why one person got a terrifying diagnosis but she did not.
Which is actually pretty awesome! (Maybe not in real life—but in our literary lives, for sure.) That’s because it’s a short trip from misinterpreting a situation to taking misguided action on it—which, in fiction, can lead to exactly the sort of trouble needed to drive our story full speed ahead!
Got a dead spot in your plot? A place where not enough is happening? Play with this idea:
Your main character misunderstands another person’s motivations—believing them to be acting out of malice, when that is far from the truth!
Even worse, your MC takes vindictive action in response to the story she’s concocted.
What bad stuff comes tumbling down the hill to complicate her life as a result?
How the heck is she going to dig herself out of this mess?
2) Alter egos
Clever tarot writer Kate at DailyTarotGirl.com has been promoting the subversive advice of her “evil twin,” Veronica, for years. As I pondered a fresh approach to complicating a story I was working on, I thought about Veronica and realized the damage an alter ego could do to a plot!
Just imagine it! What if your main character had an alter ego? A persona she allowed to say, eat, or do whatever her daily persona was constrained against? That alternative personality might be braver, stronger, or kinder than she is in her regular guise. Or that other personality might be sneaky and underhanded. Or, if you’re writing a thriller, she might even be murderous!
And that’s just a start! What kinds of literary trouble might such a character generate? The possibilities seem endless—and fascinatingly, conflict-inducing-ly, complicatedly fraught!
So, that’s it for this week. Now, go forth and blow up your plot with these or any other trouble-inducing ideas. Just light the fuse and stick your fingers in your ears. After it gets over the shock, your story will thank you for it!
FACING A DREADED WRITING PROJECT? School paper, report for work, difficult email, tricky scene in a story? Try this: Mentally choose a person you know (in real life or any fictional hero/ine or historical figure) who would be sympathetic and/or interested in your material or plight.
Now, for the moment, forget the (seemingly impossible) formal requirements of your project. Instead, focus on your imagined friend and start by writing them a letter in which you share with them all your thoughts and ideas and concerns about the topic at hand. (This would be in the nature of a personalized data dump. No pretty turns of phrase required!)
So, for example: If I were feeling stuck explaining the directions to this particular exercise, I might first write it as a note to my friend Jill. As one of my BFFs, Jill is almost always sympathetic. As a writer, she’s almost always interested. (At least in my imagination, which is really all that counts at this moment of my deep stuck-ed-ness!)
Here we go . . .
I’ve got a great exercise to help folks when they’re overwhelmed by a daunting writing assignment or project. I want to tell them they can get tons of words and ideas on the page if they’ll just write everything that comes to mind as if they were writing a friend a free-wheeling letter about the project.
I don’t know if you remember, but I used to do exactly this when we were in college and I was stuck with a deadline on a paper I didn’t want to write! For instance, I might have to report on THE CANTERBURY TALES, and not have a clue about how to start—so I’d write a letter about it to you!
In that quck-scribbled note, I’d dump everything I knew about Chaucer, willy-nilly, including my attitude about him and his wild, winding parade of pilgrims—and my thoughts about my dratted professor.
Once I’d “told” you everything I had in my head, THEN I’d begin to write in earnest. Reviewing what I’d shared with (imagined) you, I’d sort out what was relevant from what wasn’t. Next, I’d organize what was left and add in anything that was missing. And, voila! I had a solid draft. All because I was just writing to you….
Thanks for “listening”! I think I can take it from here!
Even if this feels simplistic, so easy it’s unlikely to unstick your massive writer’s block, I still suggest you give it a shot. Apply this easy-peasy method to a frustrating scene in your novel, a letter of reference that you have to write but don’t really want to, marketing copy, or the currently-awkward outline of your non-fiction book proposal.
I swear by this method to turn my mountainous writer’s block into an easily shifted molehill.
IT’S FRIDAY. I’m talking to my friend Mary, who is an excellent writer—but who no longer writes. I actually have several friends like that. But it’s okay. She’s a wonderful human being, anyway. Still, it makes me wonder why writers stop writing. Have you ever put down your pen (or the electronic version thereof) and simply walked away from your literary endeavors?
If so, have you returned to the life of the word?
And if you have, how long did your hiatus last? Do you know why you stopped? What did you learn about your relationship to writing while you and it were on a break (Ross and Rachel reference: sorry/not sorry). What made you come back? Are you a better writer for stepping away? Did you change genres? What about your writing changed since you quit for a while?
If you’re anything like me, when you’re not writing, your life just isn’t complete. While I may be relieved at not having to show up at my keyboard on the regular, the hole writing leaves is a gaping one. And like most gaping holes, the writing hole has a prodigious gravitational pull. So (like you? but not like Mary—yet), I always get sucked back in.
1) Wherever you are on the writing/not-writing continuum, you might want to journal a bit about your relationship with the word-hungry beast. Use any of the questions posed above as a starting point for your personal exploration regarding your love/love-hate relationship with writing.
2) You might also want to take your experience of writing/not writing and put it to fictional use. In that case, here’s a prompt for you:
Write about a character who steps away from an art form (writing, painting, trumpeting …) that has had great significance for her. Perhaps she gives it up for a more practical path—accounting or nursing or parenting, for instance. Or because she loses her connection to her muse. Or because she feels like she’ll never achieve greatness in her field. Or….
Write a series of scenes about your character’s return to the pen/fiddle/garden. Start with the moment in which she first realizes will never feel fulfilled until she gets back to her keyboard/easel/pastry board. Next, have her act on that epiphany: Does she just walk away from her current life? At what expense? Or does she try to integrate her art into her non-art circumstances? And how does that work out? (Use this opportunity to create big trouble for your character, as someone in her life is likely to rise up and complicate her new-found decision, if not block her creative path altogether!)
Personally, I’m not big on writing (or reading) about romance. But I am deeply interested in how people—fictional and actual—conduct their creative lives. So, if this idea sounds good to you, and you find it has legs, let me know when your novel or memoir about reviving a creative life is published. I’ll be first in the pre-order line at Amazon. Because I am always delighted to read a tale about the hot, sweaty pursuit of a tall, dark, handsome life in the arts.
IN REAL LIFE, IT’S GREAT TO GIVE SOMEONE THE BENEFIT OF A DOUBT. (For instance, while you know Janice might be hiding your pearl necklace somewhere in her room, because she’s your best friend, you’re willing to give her the benefit of a doubt and accept her claim that she hasn’t seen it since you wore it to Sarah’s wedding.) Giving people the benefit of a doubt allows them the chance for a do-over or to make amends. (You know, like sneak your pearl necklace back into your jewelry box while you’re not looking.) But unless they actually change their (bad) behavior, the amends are pretty much null, right?
I think we’ve all met that person. Heck, we may have all been that person! Sometimes, a habitual way of being—however detrimental to self or others—simply overrides the impulse to change. In that case, no matter how many benefits of a doubt they receive, some folks aren’t going to head down a better path anytime soon.
This is tough when it applies to someone close to us—in real life. But what if the recalcitrant person is a character in your novel? Well, then! You either have an excellent, if weasel-y, antagonist. Or you might have a deeply flawed protagonist. In either case, you’re in possession of literary trouble of the most excellent kind!
So what could that benefit of a doubt look like?
allowing for the possibility that she didn’t really shove that boy from the monkey bars—maybe she was just reaching out to grab the kid when he fell
allowing for the possibility that his hitting her was a one-time occurrence
allowing for the possibility that the circumstantial evidence tying her to the murder is just that: purely circumstantial
allowing for the possibility that he really didn’t know the gun was loaded
that he really, truly, honestly didn’t know that the “gift” constituted a bribe
Pick one of these—or any of the myriad other benefit-of-a-doubt-eliciting situations that would give a character one more chance to “slip out the back, Jack”—and you’ll find yourself tumbling into a veritable rat’s-nest of plot development.
You see, giving the wrong character the benefit of a doubt can ratchet up your story to such a level that your beneficent protagonist will be forced take a stand. On the other hand, if it’s your flawed protagonist who has been handed one benefit-of-a-doubt too many—received yet another several-thousand-dollar loan from her parents; gotten a pass from his boss when yet another co-worker has filed a complaint about his sexist remarks; had the accusation about yet another nasty incident at the dog park waived—then it’s clear her story is going to back her into a stakes-filled corner and keep her there until she cries “uncle!” and makes a change.
What is simply unacceptable behavior in real life can prove invaluable in turning up the heat in your fictional world. So, go ahead. Give that questionable character the benefit of a doubt and let the good (story-telling) times roll.