I’ve been stressed, overwhelmed and slightly (not clinically) depressed this last year. Life is overwhelming for us all right now with covid, toxic politics, finances and our daily lives—there’s no arguing that. And for me, add to those stressors my mother’s dementia and now her LONG goodbye. The doctor sent her home over a month ago, telling us death was imminent. I’ve been in emotional stasis, sleeplessness, stomach issues and overall just feeling CRAPPY in the face of her slow demise and my helplessness. Crappy. We think that now it will be only days until mom says her final farewell… Days…. Grieve, heavy as cement has anchored in my lungs.
So, what does this have to do with writing? Just this; sometimes life gets in the way of your writing goals. PERIOD. It’s life (and death) and you can’t beat yourself up (that’s me reminding myself to stop beating myself up)…sometimes you, I, just can’t focus on ANYTHING but what’s in front of me, and that takes ALL my energy. Lately, I’d forgotten why my writing mattered, why I did it, and if I should continue or just move on to something else, like that retirement I’m supposed to be enjoying.
But sometimes the universe gives me a gentle reminder of why I write. This morning I woke to an e-mail from a publisher for whom I wrote and narrated a Seattle TOP 25 Coffee Shops App (still available on iTunes) because he wanted to verify my payment address. When I verified the address for a check I get every 24 months (all based on iTunes sales) I remembered how much fun it was to put all my favorite #writing #coffeeshops and hangouts throughout Seattle, into this app. It reminded me how I love to explore, #write about what I learn, and then learn something new, like creating an app. And it reminded me that in creating that app, or teaching a class, or submitting my novels and short stories for publication, that sometimes, once in purple moon, the universe responds. Thanks universe. I needed that gentle reminder.
So, if you’re going through a tough time, go through it, you cant go around it. Then, when you’re ready, your writing will be there, your stories will be waiting. When you return to them, a little more broken, a little more empathetic, you will bring that to your work and it will be the better for it. That’s a round-about way of saying, all of life is material. Don’t give up, just be kind and patient with yourself. Your writing will wait for you.
“Nothing bad can happen to a writer. Everything is material.”―
In storytelling, the term, universal truth can often stop a writer in their tracks. Simply put, that truth creates a common frame of reference for the story. Like classic myths, this “truth” also rises above culture and language. We recognize it instantly—it resonates deeply.
Shakespeare was a master at theme and universal truth. And he’s the best example of a writer who mastered those aspects of the writing craft and remains relevant to this day. Among his MANY stories, Romeo and Juliet is still popular because of its universal and relatable themes. I remember balling my eyes out in the 7th grade when my sister and I went to the Rose Theater 4 weekends in a row to watch Romeo and Juliet.
Tattooed on my sappy teen-age soul is the last scene; both Romeo and Juliet die because they both believe the other is dead. SOB, SOB, SOB, went the pre-teen girls. They died for love, unable to bear living in a world without each other. We cried through our popcorn, we cried through our Dilly Bars, and we cried so loud that on weekend 5, the theater owner finally tossed us to the curb. Then in the 1980s when we had VCRs, (link added in case you’re too young to know what that is.) Anyway, we got the video. Then we locked everyone out of the house, curled up with popcorn on the couch on a Saturday morning and again, we cried.
WHY does a story capture our hearts in such a way? Generally, it’s the universal theme and truth; love, longing, desire, loss….
The Universal Truth can be anything that grounds the story along familiar lines; lost love, a dying parent, a betraying spouse, man’s (or woman’s) best friend (Dogs), a funeral, a wedding, or a family holiday dinner, to name just a few.
In literary writing a universal truth is an emotion or experience that the reader can relate to, no matter their language, upbringing, race, or life experiences. For example, when Tolstoy wrote, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Most readers with a family immediately understood and agreed, making it a universal truth that transcends culture, privilege, time and space.
Additionally, a key component of a powerful personal narrative (essay) is a “universal truth,” also called “a life lesson.”
Life Lesson Examples:
Be true to yourself.
What goes around comes around.
You can’t always get what you want. (but you might get what you need)
Face your fears. (overcoming)
What goes around comes around (Karma).
You reap what you sow (you get out of life what you put into it). To survive is to live
A universal message is a message that resounds beyond the story—a message that has meaning even when you strip away the book’s details.
For example, the main theme in Gone with the Wind is survival during a time when traditions, ways of life and thinking, love and understanding are gone with the wind, like in the South during the Civil War, or any story during or post war. To submit that tradition, way of life, love and understanding can all be GONE WITH THE WIND, is a universal statement that was based on, or an extension of the universal theme of survival.
Why has Gone with the Wind been popular for so long? There are a lot of reasons (good and bad), but the strongest of which is the universal themes of the story. Survival and courage in a time of crisis, never giving up in the face of impossible odds, and of course the refrain “Tomorrow is another day” make the story timeless. Anyone, regardless of age, gender, orientation, religion, time or space, can hang on to. Readers and movie goers relate to the characters on some level or another. Because of this, it’s tough to pigeonhole Gone with the Wind as era-specific; it could be any era, any place, any time. Having said that, it certainly is a creation of its time, but the larger more universal themes and truths make it a timeless story.
Right now, sitting here at my computer, everyone under quarantine, my dog is bored, my husband is watching the tv on LOUD, and I’ve gained four pounds that I will call the quarantine four (like the college fifteen) anyway, I’m kinda liking that mantra, Tomorrow is another day.
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Regardless whether you’re a Plantser (an Outliner) or a Pantser (one who writes by the seat of their pants)—I’m a combo, a PLAN-ANTSER…HA! Did I just coin a term?—Anyway, no matter how you approach your short (or long) story, I recommend a basic story structure, like the classic, 3-Act. Aristotle wrote that a tragedy, (a type of plot) should be divided into parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. He also believed that the events of the 3-part-plot must somehow relate to one another as being either necessary or credible. And so, we have the 3-Act-Structure.
The 3-Act Story Structure (Thank you Aristotle)
TIP: Before you design your structure consider first, what is the profound change you want your character to experience by the end? Why? Because the answer to that question should fuel your story through all 3-acts, delivering theme, character arc, and a satisfying resolution.
Act 1: BEGINNING – Set up. Introduce your characters; establish the story world, theme and tone. Here, your protagonist should be called to action, due to some sort of crisis point (inciting incident) that shakes up their ordinary world and launches them into a new one.
Act 2: MIDDLE – Conflict. Avoid saggy middles by plunging the protagonist and allies deeper into even more difficulties and obstacles. Often things get worse and they need to re-group and get back on their feet, before things can get better.
Act 3: END – Resolution. This is where your main character(s) figures things out, and actually develops the courage, or a plan to face their demons, slay their dragons, and solve their problems. As a writer, you should always write towards a satisfying ending. That’s why I started with the TIP of knowing what you want your character to experience, their ARC, by the story’s end.
This is a typical story structure is a good starting point if you want to write short stories. I also do this for novel length stories as well. Smart guy, that Aristotle, he sure knew what he was talking about.
And here’s a little you tube (6 minutes) with additional ideas on structuring short stories, starting with Anne Lamont’s acronym ABDCE
Hey Scribes! This video is for you. So sorry we had to cancel our weekly Edmonds writing group today, but we don’t have any protocol or real understanding of the Coronavirus just yet, so, an abundance of caution seemed to be wise. ANYWAY, on to what we were going to cover today; #Shortstories. In this clip that I made in my cozy nook at home, I’ve read a couple examples of the beginning of short stories for things to ponder as you imagine your own. We’ll dig in next week. Meanwhile the stories I’ve chosen as my examples today are Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, and Jo Ann Beard’s, The Tomb of Wrestling. I love them both.
SO, hopefully my short message will keep you in the writing groove because next week we’re going to start looking at short stories. And in case you are wondering, a short story is; Traditional, 1500-5000 wds — Flash Fiction, 500-1000 wds — Micro Fiction, 5-350 wds Remember,
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Maybe by Hemingway, but nobody is sure.
Anyway, here’s my video, it’s about 10 minutes.
Good critique – the opinion of readers and other writers whom you trust – is vital to writers who want to improve their craft. Critique helps a writer make that piece of writing they just birthed, even better, and therefore increasing the odds of publication.
However, critiquing another writer’s work is a delicate, potentially hazardous proposition (to friendships and or family relationships) if you forget a few golden rules. I’ve seen writers receiving critique, drop into despair, eyes water, some even storm out of critique groups and never come back. That serves no one. Keep in mind that often writers tie their entire sense of self worth to their writing. A critique can seem like criticism if not handled carefully. In my beginning years critiques were hard for my thin skin to take. These days a critique is just part of the work, a necessary part, and I’m happy to edit, cut and rewrite to make my work what I want it to be. In other words, I now have thick scaly alligator skin.
Conversely, I’ve seen writers who want ONLY praise, who will not and do not read the craft books, understand the art of writing, and have no intention of doing so. To protect yourself, your time and energy keep this golden rule; DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME AND ENERGY on any writer who is not working on their writing as hard as you do, or more so.
No one learns anything if you are too kind, not brave enough, and your feedback is done hastily and is not helpful.
In critiquing, remember these golden rules;
- Critique the writing, not the writer.
- ONLY work with writers who want honest feedback that will genuinely help them improve their work.
- Take time and make an effort so you can offer a critique that is thoughtful and helpful; otherwise, just respectfully decline to do a critique for them.
- Put yourself in the critique receiver’s shoes. EMPATHY is key here.
- Always be brave enough to tell them the truth, in the kindest way possible.
- Take time to consider your feedback and how it may be received, then hopefully both parties come out unscathed, wiser and with mutual respect.
And for those receiving critique;
Not letting writing critiques wound you is easy to say. It necessitates a change of perception and a ton of practice to earn my kind of alligator skin. Constantly remember; your writing is not a reflection of your value as a human being. Keep reminding yourself that a critique is an opportunity for evolution. Keep reiterating to yourself; to become a better, stronger writer will take growing pains, as does all transformation. I remind myself of what Hemingway said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” Then I take every opportunity, including receiving critiques, to become better at my craft.
Bottom line, it’s your work, your words, your story. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.