‘The collective fear on their parents faces that day, settled in Sylvia’s bones. The Nazis had tried to force her parents, God fearing Christians to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler. Since they refused, they knew they were on the list of undesirables.’
I wrote that this week for one of the stories in my WIP, a collection of short stories. My fictional character’s life was changed the day her parents paid the ultimate price for their values.
As a writer, it’s vital that we understand the history of our characters, the choices they’ve made either willingly or unwillingly. We need to know what happened in their past because the past is, and always will be relevant to the present, and it will form the future. It informs the world we inhabit and it informs the choices we make. This goes for our fictional characters as well.
So when my character’s parents made that brave choice, they knew full well that not swearing an oath of loyalty to Hitler would likely be a death sentence, but they stood strong in their values. That choice altered the lives of the entire family not for that moment in time, but for generations, for all time. That decision in 1944 charted the course for my character’s behavior in 1976, giving a deep layered background for the story and every choice she makes.
Don’t get sidetracked by your character’s backstory (it’s easy to do), and certainly don’t do info dumps of narration, nobody likes that.
But DO pepper your stories with enough seasoning (backstory) to give it the full flavor that will deliver a satisfying read to your audience. And if in that read you can educate and illuminate the reader, all the better.
I have a clear objective with this particular story, and that is to show, not tell, that white supremacy attitudes (worldwide) lead to a ravenous hunger for power and ultimately, a thirst for blood. However, as with any writer who has a specific message or agenda, the best way to get that across is through story, not from a pulpit. Stories change hearts, hearts change minds. Pulpits just piss people off. Be a storyteller not a preacher (unless you’re actually a preacher, in that case, preach on.) Don’t beat people over the head with your message, tell them a story.
Recently, I taught a three week series on how objects make great storytelling strategies. Below is a reprint of an article I wrote a few years back for Willamette Writers magazine about the use of objects as plot devices and metaphors.
In 2011 I embarked on one of the harshest undertakings; I placed what I thought was the final draft of my novel in a drawer for one year. Why? Because, as I told others in my most knowledgeable author voice, “A writer needs distance from their material before editing and rewriting.”
While that’s true, the real reason was, the story didn’t work. I thought it worked, it worked in my head, but based on a few shrewd readers it didn’t work in theirs.
During that year–fighting the wicked temptation to tweak pages, chapters and plots–I turned my attention to books on rewriting, in search of a magic key to unlock my manuscript and turn it into a novel, the kind people wanted to read. I took workshops, and reaped too many tips to list. All that matters is that nothing helped, until one day . . . .
I read yet another craft book, and SHAZAM! You know how it feels when something simple smacks you like a Mack truck of a good idea? Well, chapter 14 in the The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel by Robert J. Ray, did that for me. The ‘objects lesson’ taught me to utilize my story objects (often called plot-devices) as shorthand for backstory and eliminate a lot of dense narrative.
“Objects tell your story.” Ray writes. “When you rewrite your novel, you can tighten your story by repeating a single object; car, train, statue, slipper, harpoon, book. There’s a good chance the objects are already there, in your manuscript, waiting to be found, to be selected, to be repeated, to be laid down like neon breadcrumbs in the forest. Readers follow breadcrumbs.”
I began to see the power of storytelling objects everywhere. What’s Lord of the Rings without the ring, Cinderella without glass slippers, The Notebook without the book, or poor little Forest Gump without his box of chocolates?
No glass slippers, no enchanted tale, just a barefoot girl with an unfortunate name who probably does not go from rags to riches and who likely does not find her fella . . . what’s the point?
In Nicholas Spark’s novel The Notebook, that evocative leather bound book literally contains their love story. And that chocolate box on Forest Gump’s lap is a metaphor for the story to come; “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” And oh-boy does that plot device set up and deliver a story.
Though easily overdone, an object that’s well-crafted, or emerges organically from setting or characters can establish a character’s values and thus inform and enhance the story.
In a Willamette Writers Conference screenwriting/storytelling workshop taught by Clark Kohanek, he too touched on the objects lesson. “Think about Die Hard,” Kohanek said, “when Bruce Willis enters with the teddy bear. We immediately know that object defines what’s important to him; family.”
That fuzzy teddy bear represents Willis’s values and reenters the story burnt and dirty, but safe, like him, ready to reunite with what he values so much he’d kill for. That object represents the driving force, and heart of the story because it’s valued by the protagonist.
Eventually, in rewriting my novel, the protagonist, Theo Riley, now has a toy soldier, a stack of blood-stained returned love letters, and a photograph of Korean Orphans. This trinity of objects define him, inform his moral compass and ultimately chart his destiny. These objects give the reader an understanding of Theo on a deeper level. They are backstory shorthand, and explaining it once eliminated pages of narration, because when the reader sees the tin soldier, letters, or pictures (Neon Breadcrumbs), they remember . . . because objects are a writer’s magic keys.
“A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, ‘the centre cannot hold.’”
– Robert McKee
Can Writers Learn Lessons from Bad Storytelling?
In Fargo speak, YOU BETCHA!
Twenty years ago a magazine editor told me that she admired my writing style because I ‘creatively broke the rules’. Huh? Thankfully, they bought and published that article in a glossy (old school for you younglings) magazine and I got paid. Thing was, when she said ‘broke the rules’ I hadn’t a clue what she meant. That sent me on a LONG journey of learning the rules so I could break them knowingly and with intentional, instead of accidental style.
“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” —Jack Kerouac
That being said, there are many writing ‘rules’, but there are none that need ALWAYS be obeyed. As a matter of fact, conforming to rules often stifles artistic endeavor and can destroy an otherwise good story. Freedom, however, comes with responsibility. Any writer can break the ‘rules’, as long as it passes the onerous test of an audience. And (to quote Shakespeare) therein lies the rub.
It’s important to remember some rules of good #storytelling. For example, characters are what they do. Goes to follow that if your character doesn’t DO anything, you’ve got a problem. Story events should ALWAYS influence the character’s behavior, conversely the character’s behavior should impact story events. Actions and reactions produce revelation and insight, culminating in a meaningful emotional experience for the audience. And so on…but you know all that, right?
Now, I love a good book and a good tv-binge because I study storytelling in all genres. My most recent tv-binge, after Stranger Things (which delivers on SO many levels) has been The Last Kingdom. In the Last Kingdom they stuck to some solid storytelling principles, and delivered a historically accurate and captivating drama. Oh, did I forget to mention the bevy of handsome hunky actors who actually have acting chops? Then there’s that….But, after season 4 Ended, and while anxiously awaiting season 3 of Stranger Things (July 2019), we needed to find another mutually acceptable (that’s a husband wife thing) tv-binge.
We settled (after much debate – another husband wife tv watching issue) on Frontier, starring the ever resting on his gorgeousness, JASON MOMOA, (AKA Auquaman) with ZOE BOYLE (Downton Abbey) and ALUN ARMSTRONG (KRULL, and too much British Fabulousness to list).
We started watching, hopeful that the perilous era of the 1770s in Canada’s fur trading wars would provide some great entertainment. It had a boundless premise; by the late 1700s, French, Scottish and American immigrants have destabilized the Hudson’s Bay Company’s control in the fur trade. The HB company provokes a bloody battle for control of power and wealth, led by (here’s our bad guy) Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) and opposed by the savage (good guy) Declan Harp (Jason Momoa) a rogue and fierce former HB employee. Since hubby and I like #historicalfiction drama that explores aspects of a real history, we decided this could be entertaining, and certainly Armstrong has the serious acting chops to tell the story, right?
SO, the first 4 episodes had some problems, there’s a lot going on there, but we thought, okay, we’ll hang in for the actors. One thing that bugged the heck out of me was the incongruous quotes at the beginning of each episode. RED FLAG! They were from people like Alan Greenspan and Ice T, who, though quotable, have NOTHING to do with the period or the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company, or the Indigenous tribes, or ANYTHING at all to do with the subject matter. It was like some teenager said, ‘Hey, this’ll be cool,’ without any regard for the audience. The quotes were SO incompatible they took me out of the story before it even started.
As a writer, that’s a serious golden rule, and the LAST thing you want to do to your readers and or viewers, NEVER take your audience out of the story.
Anyway, we hung in there UNTIL… in the middle of episode five we hit a wall. Despite the good actors, the potential for a fascinating period drama, our collective eye-rolling during episode 5 did us in. The writing, regarding female interaction with males, had to be done by a team of 13 year old sniggering boys. I could just hear them in the corner of their office/playground giggling and saying, ‘boobies’. In the scene where the lovely actress, #BreanneHill who plays barmaid, Mary endeavors to ‘seduce’ an officer, it was clear no female was involved in the writing of those scenes and others involving men and women interacting. It was sophomoric. We stopped watching.
It didn’t even rise to the level of being disgusting or repulsive or anything remotely like that – that would require skill –
no, it was just stupid, and insulting. And that’s another golden rule you shouldn’t break, NEVER insult the intelligence of your audience.
As Robert McKee says, a writer must have ‘respect, not disdain, for the audience’.
A good #story should make the audience feel emotions in reaction to the story as it unfolds. Every time #Frontier hinted at an emotional connection it then jumped (leaps and bounds) to another #storyline and didn’t return to the one I thought I was going to connect with. For example, the first episode we leave a young Irish girl, Clenna played by Lyla Porter-Follows, stranded by her lover and trapped in an English prison. By the time we return to her in Episode 5, I no longer cared about her or the potential love story. That needed to be set up better to have a pay-off.
Even good #writers can get caught up by a notion or an emotion that disengages them from their audience and results in a story that loses traction or takes an unexpected direction, so it’s vital to stay on alert when writing. The best works connect with the audience and sustain a connection throughout the story.
If a writer falls into the deception that their audience is stupid, incapable of understanding story nuances and that considering them is nothing but an inconvenience, they are as doomed as their story.
Frontier bombs on many fronts, but mostly in its #writing, it fails to do anything truly meaningful, it wants to be a mature gritty, violent #drama, and in some ways it is, but really it’s just a hodgepodge of activity with no heart at its core. A story needs an undeniable truth, and a heart at its center.
Netflix has some GREAT writers and GREAT programming, this just didn’t rise to that level. And though I really want to believe that Jason Mamoa can bring a little more to a story than his powerful presence, he should go get an Indie Film role and prove that he can rise above his screen stealing image and show us if he can ACT. Because when the writing is weak, the actor needs to be that much more skilled.
Anyway, a writer must know the rules to break them successfully. That’s the art, and that art requires skill. In the betrayal of them, an onus of great power is on you as an artist. It’s important to know the rules/guidelines of writing because your audience has expectations and if you let them down, you lose them. If you aren’t familiar with some of the rules out there in the blogosphere, a good place to start is with Stephen King’s top 20 rules of writing.
“Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly. Then, like the hero of the fable, your dance will dazzle the world.”– Robert McKee
THANK YOU for letting me rant about bad writing, and hopefully in this rant you can find a few nuggets. If you liked this, please share on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest or wherever you socially media. Thanks for reading. Cheers, Mindy
In June 2018, I decided to scale back on activities that added to stress, you know that ‘One more thing to do today’ kind, and other energy draining commitments that kept me from my writing projects. During those months I also resigned from two committees that took my time in ways that were not creative, and then signed onto a board, Epic Writers Group, where I can be an active participant in the creative writing community. It’s CRITICAL to all of us to assess what makes us happy, what adds stress, or what makes us sick, and then do a course correction. I had always done this in my annual business review of my goals and aspirations, but am very guilty of not doing this in my private and or writing life. So KUDOS to me for doing some long overdue adulting. Oh, and that’s another VERY important aspect of this reassessing, realigning and re-imaging of life goals, giving YOURSELF a pat on the back.
This month I feel re-energized and recommited, and will get back to my blogging about writing, the writer’s life and whatever else strikes my fancy, but for now, THANK YOU for hanging in with me as a follower. As a gift I’d like you to receive this updated 2019 booklet, titled 17 Blogging & Social Media Tips for Writers, just click here to download.
MEANWHILE, keep writing, keep submitting, and of course keep reading other writer’s work. And local writers, there’s a #writing contest at EPIC GROUP WRITERS in Edmonds Washington that is open to all. Check it out via the below information. Good luck.
** Attention Writers in Washington State **
You are invited to enter your prose and/or poetry
EPIC Group Writers Writing Contest
~ Make us laugh, cry, and think ~
** EPIC Writing Contest is now open **
Welcoming entries in poetry and prose
Friday, February 1 through Friday, April 5
Adult and Student (grades 8-12) categories.
Cash awards for 1st and 2nd Place Winners.
Student Winners’ school libraries also receive a cash prize.
Publication on www.epicgroupwriters.com
Submission dates: Friday, February 1 through Friday, April 5, 2019
Submission fees: EPIC Members (adults): $10.00 per submission
Non-members (adults): $15.00 per submission (Not a member? Click here!
Students (grades 8-12): FREE
CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT
A public reading and reception will be held at the Edmonds Library on May 16, 2019
I’m a storyteller. Most of my friends are storytellers; playwrights, poets, novelist, singers, songwriters, and artists of all mediums. We all tell stories for different reasons, and yet for the same purpose, storytelling aids us in understanding the world around us.
Storytelling predates writing. The most primitive forms of storytelling were usually oral expressions. Storytellers come in many forms, with many voices and tools, from poetry and literature to graffiti and fine art. We need storytellers, artist and writers, to elicit passion and emotions, especially in dark times when we can so easily avert our eyes from troubling events like a cultural revolution, rebellion, social injustice, corrupt politicians, police brutality, the imprisonment or genocide of an entire people.
Though the ancient origins of storytelling have vanished into the mist of time, the importance of storytelling and those who tell stories has not. From cave dwellings to the recontours of Native Indian lore, families and cultures with strong narratives and passionate tellers, thrive in their collective story.
Think about times spent sitting around the kitchen table with your family – your witnesses on this journey – as they tell and retell all the often cringe-worthy memories of you as a child, or their experiences during the Great Depression, or whatever the family stories are. Think how bonding that is/was, how it informed your sense of who you are and where you come from. At my grandma’s house, all of us crowded into the yellow-vinyl kitchen booth, drank weak Folgers coffee, my aunts’ chain-smoked Salem cigarettes, and talked like ‘mag-pies’ grandma always said. And at that jam-packed table every story started with “I remember that time you….”
Capturing and retelling the stories of our collective history is vital to understanding our existence on this planet – trust me, when grandma is gone, you’re gonna wish you took notes, and you’re gonna remember with heartache and joy, every story she ever told you. Our stories are important.
Storytelling is vital to the human experience. It allows us to digest information with greater ease by more effectively linking that information to our feelings and then our thoughts. Generally, once we’ve felt something, we don’t forget it. I recall years ago, seeing the movie, Dead Man Walking, and how when my friends and I left the theater we talked about the death penalty, I recall feeling very differently about that controversial topic after seeing one man’s poignant story.
One of the reasons I wrote my novel, Return to Sender was to reiterate the history (lest we are doomed to repeat it), and the stories I grew up with as the child of a Korean War veteran, about the atrocities of the brutal North Koreans against their own people, and most especially against their own orphans. A topic as timely today (sadly) as it was in the 1950s. In my novel I paid tribute to the most haunting aspect of the Korean War for both my father and my father-in-law; the slaughter of innocent children by their own people. Having these precious photographs of many of these children made their stories personal to me.
There are certain aspects of history that resonate deeply with all of us. For example, my talented neighbors, Jan and Chris Hopkins, who make a great mead (home-made wine), but who are also internationally recognized, multi-award-winning artists, illustrators and storytellers. Their most recent creative endeavor of depicting the WWII internment of the Japanese in America, was motivated by Jan’s desire to learn more about her cultural identity. As a child of detained Japanese Americans, there was a lack of information about her family legacy and the ordeal of internment that they endured. Jan needed to know her story, so she and Chris have set out on a mission to share their stories through visual arts. Their joint exhibit at Everett’s Shack Center for the Arts starts June 21st thru September 2018.
Chris is a historian through his art. His paintings tell very specific aspects of the American story that resonate with
him on a soulful level. He captures moments that harken back to moments like this young Japanese-American woman who is pregnant, alone and just ‘relocated’ to an internment camp – what does the future hold for her and her unborn child now that her country (America) has turned on her? It is important to humankind to keep those stories alive so they never happen again.
Chris also painted an entire series of over 60 paintings of the Tuskegee Airmen which travels the country in art shows, like locally at the Shack Center in Everett. The Tuskegee Airmen series portrays the adventures of the first African American fighter pilots, their crews, families and legacy.
As an illustrative historian Chris has captured this pivotal moment in time; At the onset of World War II, the segregated US armed forces declined to train African Americans as pilots until a lawsuit opened the door. The Army Air Corps acquiesced to an experiment training pilots at Tuskegee University, Alabama. In March 1942 the first class of African-American aviation cadets earned their silver wings and became the nation’s
first black military pilots. Between 1941 and 1945, Tuskegee trained over 1,000 black aviators for the war effort. Chris started his Tuskegee Airmen series as part of his work for the Northwest chapter of the Air Force Art program. Over the years, the series evolved beyond the Air Force Art program to become a personal mission and passion for him. Every one of these paintings tells us a vital part of our history; who we were, who we are now, how far we’ve come, and sadly how far we have to go.
Or below, this modern-day image, social commentary, where a homeless mother and her child sit starving on the steps of the land of plenty, a posh bakery, where inside, too busy to notice, are two girls on their phones. Just as I tell stories with words, Chris uses images, and is a perceptive storyteller of our times, the good and the bad.
Regardless of medium or craft, storytelling is significant because it can illuminate moral, ethical, spiritual lessons in non-preachy ways that people can easily contemplate. Great stories engender empathy by helping people relate to someone they may never have connected with before.
Just as important as our intimate family stories are in reminding us where our faith and courage comes from – be it strong Scottish, Jewish, Irish, or French roots – and what our ancestors overcame, it’s also vital to keep historic stories alive so we never forget what our fears and prejudices can become.
What stories matter to you? Tell them.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
And, big kudos to my neighbor; Art Work by Chris Hopkins Selected for Inclusion in Major Traveling Exhibition Organized by Norman Rockwell Museum – Reimagining the Four Freedoms
In 2017, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, sent out a call to artists to create works that would reimagine President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear— or explore the meaning of freedom today, for possible inclusion in the major touring exhibition: Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. From 1000 submissions, 36 artists were accepted—including two works by local artist, Chris Hopkins—for the contemporary section of the exhibition, titled “Reimagining the Four Freedoms.”
In our time of troubling HOMELESSNESS in a country of plenty, this painting is particularly poignant.
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Lately, I’ve become especially in tune with the way people describe their relationship with cancer – and trust me, it is a relationship – or the words they use when expressing compassion toward me. It’s very common to hear statements like “You’re battling this disease” or “you’re gonna win the war” or other combat-like metaphors. I, myself even use the term ‘cancer-warrior’ just because I like the sound, and besides, who doesn’t want to be a warrior, right? But in my recent reanalyzing of this relationship with dis-ease, I am reviewing my own language. I’m a writer, words are my play things, I can do this.
I’ve come to realize that being a warrior requires a battle, it is a combative term after all. And therein lies my problem.
I’ve been living with cancer for two decades now. I have had three major surgeries and two minor. I’m down a couple organs and twice have had my throat cut from jugular to jugular – only nicked once – and have lived to tell. Alas, here I am again exhibiting irregular tests, shadowy images on scans and abnormal even ‘aggressive’ tumor indicators. Mine is a rare cancer so there isn’t much study available. As a matter of fact last week I was told that my closely-monitored 20 year old file is a great resource in the search for answers about Medullary Carcinoma – cool, glad I can help. Anyway, I’m tired of partaking in such an adversarial relationship. Besides, maybe all that fighting has added to the struggle. Besides, words are powerful things, and as my gramma used to say, ‘you can never rise above your words.’ So if I can’t rise above them, then I need to raise them to level at which I would like to live.
Cancer, at least my cancer is something I have to co-exist with. Oh sure, it may be like living with a troublemaking roommate I can’t get rid of, but live with I must. It’s in my throat, so I live with a mostly metaphorical knife at my throat, but sometimes that metaphor turns literal and surgical cutting ensues.
For a long time I also used antagonistic, rebellious ‘I’m goin’ to war’ metaphors. But now I’m attempting to alter my orientation from combatting my dis-ease to embracing and partnering with it. After all, we do share the same space, so it follows that we have to learn to connect and peacefully co-exist. HA! As I write this I keep imagining the roommate, Spike (played by Rhys Ifans) in the movie, Notting Hill. It made me smile time and time again when I was recuperating from one of my surgeries a few years ago. It hurt to laugh then, but Spike, cracked me up!
Anyway, I’ve come to realize that I can’t truly heal myself of something I’m not connected to. Have I spent all these years putting my energy into fighting instead of healing, meanwhile thinking the two were synonymous? What’s that Tony Robbins quote, ‘where focus goes, energy flows’… so true.
Well, I’ve decided to focus my energy and thoughts on healing instead of fighting and that requires a new set of skills and language. Kinda like Hugh Grant’s character, William Thacker in Notting Hill, had to do with Spike. He really had to make peace with his undesirable roommate because they shared the same space. Ultimately they became great friends.
Making peace, not war may be the best motto in life in general and may serve the overall quality of life whether you’re a patient or not. Aiming our energy towards the healing process helps us connect with our journey through any kind of dis-ease (illness, mourning, divorce, horrible roommates, etc.). It’s far more empowering than directing energy towards the anger linked with the cancer, which keeps you interlocked in a victim role and feeling you need to fight. Maybe changing the words, the language of war to a language of compassion and self-love is the path that will illuminate this often exhausting and emotional journey. Either way, since I play with words, that’s what I’ll be doing.
Oh, and if you aren’t familiar with these images of Spike, then you have to watch Notting Hill. He’s brilliant! Still laughing.
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Now can you think of a book title that would horrify your children (and possibly grandchildren) more than these seven words, Author Survives Parenthood and Writes Tell All??? Not only would it garner immediate interest (fear) from your children, but because people are voyeurs by nature, it would grab the attention of readers, at least enough for them to pick it up off the shelf (old school bookstore or virtual) and give it a look-see.
Seizing a reader’s attention via a snappy title is a first HUGE step for author-kind. With a great title you’ve won the first battle, but there are so many more battles to come. Because next you must have written a great first line (hook) and follow that up with a good premise, plot, and great storytelling.
It’s true, readers judge books by their covers, paying particular attention to the title. Your book title can make or break the success of your book.
There’s a good article on this topic at Authority Pub. Here’s an excerpt I borrowed to make my point. ….According to research conducted by author, blogger, and speaker Michael Hyatt, consumers check out a book in the following order:
Table of contents
First few paragraphs of the book’s content
Note that NOWHERE DOES IT SAY AUTHOR’S NAME.
So, in addition to scaring your children, what should a title do? If you take a peek at the above referenced site you’ll see some good examples of titles, both fiction and non. In addition, a title should intrigue, peek interest, shock, make a reader wonder What? Who? Why? offer help, or offer escape. There’s a plethora of opinions on what a title should do and how to do it. So do your research and carefully decide what works for your book.
Then after you have your title you can see if you’re on the mark.
LULU has created a free tool that will grade your title based on its probability to be successful. To create it, Lulu and their team of statisticians deliberated over a list of the best-selling titles from 1955 to 2004 and eventually created a super cool tool, the Lulu TitleScorer. Put your title in and see how it scores. I wish I’d of had this when my first novel came out, the title, Return to Sender only scored a 22% probability of success. UGH!
Also, here is a GREAT article on using power words and creating attention grabbing titles. Though the article focusing primarily on non-fiction, it’s all good info to keep in mind when crafting a title that will jump off the shelves. https://www.tckpublishing.com/how-to-write-book-titles-that-sell/
“A good title tells what the book is about. A great title tells what the end destination is. A truly superb title is one that tells the end destination and also appeals to core human desires.”
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Back in 1995 when I first purchased The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, I was still very entrenched in the day to day of making a living and surviving in a competitive business world – in other words, living a life based on everyone else’s expectations. The concept of treating my writing like a business or frankly, even respecting it myself, was an indulgent idea I didn’t have the luxury (or foresight) to comprehend. Consequently, my writing remained in the hobby category of my life for those once in awhiles when I could get to it, like a chocolate sundae, a rare and special treat.
But then I read page 23 of Cameron’s book which contains the personal contract, one of the essential tools fromthe Artist’s Way. What I soon learned was (as with anything) that if I didn’t respect my creativity, neither should I expect anyone else to. I also realized that by not valuing my creative spirit, that spirit would soon die.
I started slow, setting aside time on my less busy days and going to a coffee shop to do nothing else but write. All I knew for certain was that if I stayed in my home office I’d be distracted every five minutes, so off I went. And I’ve never looked back.
The contract changed everything for me.
I’ve revisited this idea of having a contract with myself, protecting my creative life, numerous times since then – it never hurts to revisit, revamp and reimagine spiritual agreements now and again. Now, in 2018, my writing time comes first thanks to having this agreement with myself, one that must be honored for me to experience life on my own terms, not everyone elses.
I started actively pursuing this personal and deeply spiritual agreement in 1995, and by 2000 was in Ireland on a month long writer’s residence. And now a couple decades later I’m published in many genres and many vehicles (magazines, newspapers, books, etc.), and working on my 2nd novel and some short stories. I’ve learned that my writing is not some luxurious hobby, no, writing is breath, and writing is who I am. I have the contract to prove it!
It’s vital that we, as storytellers, understand what ALL our characters (major and minor) want and need. If you have a cast of passionate characters, passionate about willy-nilly things, a story can get befuddling and difficult. Unless their passion circles the same topic the story wanders off in too many directions and then a reader gets lost.
For example, I recently read a manuscript wherein one character was passionate about rebuilding old cars, another passionate about remodeling kitchens, and a third passionate about going to day spas. Okay, interesting. Unfortunately these three passions never intersected in the story. I suggested to the writer that if all three could meet as a result of vintage cars, remodeling, or at a day spa, then they could bond over that single shared passion, the crime could have something to do with that, and so on. But instead the reader was sent in three different directions, down three separate roads only to wonder why and then quickly get tired of the story.
When I realized that the cast of characters in my upcoming novel, all of whom are holocaust survivors, all had the same needs (safety, community, nourishment, etc.) I had to write them with conflicting wants or the story would be boring (remember, wants and needs are VERY different) – some want to remember while others will do anything to forget. Some seek justice while others have lost hope in the jurisdiction of this world. Some seek the truth while others see only lies – and so on. These conflicting desires surrounding the same topic (the holocaust/concentration camp survival) create conflict no matter what else is happening. That tension filled topic is at the core of my story and keeps the spokes of my story-wheel spinning all in the same direction.
So remember, know the wants and needs of your characters and ALWAYS create conflict on every page.
Here’s a great article from K.M. Weiland on The Thing Your Character Wants VS The Thing Your Character Needs.
Last night I had the pleasure of guest lecturing at the University of Washington again, in the Fiction writing class. One young man asked me a question toward the end of the evening that I felt I left unanswered, and it bothered me all night. He asked how a writer can keep from being overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to write a novel and how much there is to learn. I’ve been there!
Anyway, I half way answered before other students chimed in with other great ideas, but I felt I never fully addressed his sincere concern. What I did say was to stay connected to your passion, remember why you wanted to be a writer in the first place, because that part of you can get SO lost in all the work. Have artist/writer’s dates with yourself, I told him. Go to coffee shops or sit on a mountain or go to the beach with a pad and pen and write (old school) because the actual act of writing taps into your subconscious and connects you with your desires, and can connect you to a deeper level of storytelling. I reminded him about what I said early in my talk; that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship and that it’s critical to remember that, and to give yourself some grace. But I didn’t’ get much further than that as it was the end of the evening and we all had to go drive in the snow.
What I’d like to add is this…
By grasping the reality that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship you can lessen the burden of the pursuit of perfection because it’s unachievable for the vast majority of writers, especially in the beginning. You can only learn so much at a time, but keep learning, keep growing, keep expanding your writerly pursuits, knowledge and craft tools, and just get better with every new project, and remember (and cherish) the writing tools (and mentors) that aid you in the journey.
Most importantly, if writing is your passion, keep writing. Find mentors like your instructor, Scott Driscoll. Find your tribe, I wish I had told him that. Find a group of like-minded writers to meet up with every so often, either just for coffee and story talk or to write with. Finding your tribe helps you stay connected. Go to writing conferences. Read great works of literature (however you define them) and get inspired to do the same. Emulate other authors who you admire. Peruse bookstore shelves, read the first sentence of ten best sellers (in your genre) and go sit in the bookstore coffee shop (or wherever you like) and write.
Also, if you love language don’t forget to play with words. I love the sounds and meanings of certain words and try to use them in my writing when I can. Or concepts, like how an object can be metaphor in a story, that’s what I was playing with when I took a break from working on my novel a couple years ago and wrote a 700 word story that won the Writer’s Digest fiction contest. So play with words, who knows where it may lead. Then, if stuck, take a break from what you’re working on and work on something else. If you’re writing a dark, difficult piece, take a break and write something funny. Play with your words, they are your tools.
Write free hand, old school like Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down the Bones. Pen and paper. It’s a transformational writing tool that connects you to your work on a deeper level than imagined.
A couple of my favorite writer’s dates with myself are; I love to go to coffee shops where I never go, in different parts of the city or take the ferry over to the islands and go to coffee shops there, and write. The fresh air on the ferry, the water and the change of scene reawakens my writing mind. I also go to art museums and sit on those couches in the middle of the room – where no one really ever sits – and gaze at great paintings, this stirs something inside me to write. Don’t know why, it just does. Last week I went to Portland, stayed in a hotel, wrote till late night, got up early went to the corner café for coffee, wrote for a couple more hours and the went on with an exhilarating day (at the art museum) culminating in a writing session back at the same café where my day started, but this time with wine instead of coffee. I needed the time alone, in the city where my next novel takes place – my story world. I was completely recharged within 24 hours of alone time. Thankfully, I have a wonderful husband who encourages these needs in my life. So whatever your life permits, create writer’s dates (no matter how grand or how small), find companions on this life-long journey of learning, and never forget to restore, inspire and encourage yourself.
What stirs your muse? Figure that out and reconnect with it frequently. For every unique writer there is a unique path. Find yours.
I am teaching The Artists Way for Writers at Edmonds Community College if you’d like to explore this further. Be well, keep writing. Cheers, Mindy