Category Archives: Creative Writing

The Story Analyst: The True In Medias Res

If you look at the stories that have rooted themselves into cultural consciousness, starting a story in medias res – the middle of things – is understood in a very particular way. But is it how you understand it?

There’s a huge difference in the way great writers begin stories and the way it’s done by the rest of us.

Let’s have a look at how we poor amateurs approach the middle of things.

A writer has a story idea in mind and wants to find a really good place to begin. The sweet spot. The heat, as it were.

Say the story is about an aging spy who is called on to undertake one final mission. Today’s writer might start the story with the protagonist (a Daniel Craig type, of course, buff, gruffly suave, in control) waking up beside some hot dumb-as-bricks supermodel, contemplating in detail his predicament so the reader knows exactly what’s going on. There might be some flash-backing to signal the danger yet to come.

Some might have him already in the middle of the caper, with all the stakes pressing in on him. Or right in the middle of/after a shoot-out.

What’s the problem, you might ask? Isn’t that in the middle of the action? Isn’t that what any creative writer would do?

Not John Le Carre. Le Carre knows the difference between plot and development. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold he starts his story developmentally at a point where Alec Leamas is on the verge of his biggest screw-up yet but doesn’t know it. He’s no Daniel Craig. Mid 50-ish, he’s not fit or buff. He’s unkempt. And he’s a problem drinker (that’s a nice way of suggesting “drunkard”).

There are no heroics. He’s just washed-up, waiting at a heavily guarded East-West German checkpoint for his contact to come across, trying to salvage this one Cold War assignment (of many that have gone sideways on him). In this moment he has nowhere left to go personally or professionally. He’s in the middle of a major disaster in the making. It’s already happening but Leamas refuses to see it or the entire scope of what’s happened to his career. Everything rides on his man coming down that road. Where they are physically and geographically is symbolically significant. The chapter is called “Checkpoint”.

He’s at the checkpoint of his career and life. See what Le Carre did there? Checkpoint? Get it?

Le Carre starts the story, not in the middle of the plotting action or the most exciting or dynamic part of the story. That would be closer to the end when he’s being held by the East Germans and attempts to escape.

Rather, he starts in the middle of things. The lens is pulled back from the action of the story – the spy action and the plot action – to make the opening circumstances reflect the developmental context of Leamas’ life situation, the very conditions that have brought him to this point, and which will drive him straight into the mess he will find himself in later.

But none of it can happen without this opening snafu. None.

What happens on that bridge t-bones what’s left of Alec’s life, sending it on its collision-course.

The place where he begins is more than just the middle of an action or the story. It’s the crossroads of every facet of his life. Note:

He’s a screw up but it’s not all his fault. He’s surrounded by screw-ups and betrayal. The weight of this impregnates the opening scene, but becomes more apparent and consequential as the story unfolds, driving Leamas to the final scene. This is especially obvious when his true lack of control over the situation is revealed. He’s not only hamstrung by the fools and liars who surround him, but what they’ve done to him has put him in the exact position to be used, manipulated, and inevitably betrayed.

Middle-aged. His youth and strength are gone. All he has left is gut-level instinct. And even that is questionable. This is the precise vulnerability that makes him easy prey for his handlers as well as his targets. Had Leamus been younger he might not have invested so much in Liz Gold, which would have changed the outcome in which Gold becomes pivotal; any older and he would have been unable to handle what his controllers knew would be facing him in East Germany, making his placement in that mission unlikely and unsurviveable.

A loner. His life in duplicity has made it impossible to live as a normal human being, but built into that is a deep sense of his lifelong lack of connection to anything – that whoever he was before becoming a spy was exactly what made a life of espionage possible. He never had anything (or anyone) to lose, and this is what inevitably makes Liz Gold so important to the story. Le Carre accomplishes this sense of Leamas’ past with master strokes – Leamas’ transience, his comfort with squalor and rough living, drink, bad neighbourhoods, no mention of family or friends. He was an expendable cog from one system that became an expendable cog in another system, only with higher stakes. A life of too much dissimulation, too much absence (in more ways than one) is the life a loner who comes from dissimulation and absence gets. Yet his loner status and how he musters everything he has left in him as a human being just to embrace love is exactly what leads to the tragic outcome. It’s used against him, but it also becomes the final heartbeat of his humanity. It saves him on the only level left that matters to him.

A drunk. Le Carre evokes a strong sense that this was written into Leamas’ very DNA, but given his age and what’s become of his life and career it’s the only way left to cope. It’s also what makes him right for the ruse necessary for his final mission. The line between Leamas and the role he is required to play as a disaffected agent ripe for Eastern-bloc harvesting is barely visible, thus making the ruse credible.

He thinks he knows what’s going on. Leamas prides himself on his ability to get the lay of the land, but somehow the landscape has changed under him without his having been aware of it. This peril in knowing is what turns everything inside-out.

Everything rides on his work. Until it doesn’t, and then, in the end, he realises that what matters rides on the choice he makes on that wall. He can choose the agency, himself, or Liz, but whatever choice he makes presents a dire double-bind that will cost him dearly.

To choose Liz is to lose his life. To choose anything else is to lose his humanity.

Wow.

That the story begins on a bridge and ends on a wall is incredibly astute use of metaphor.

Everything about this story mirrors what we already intuitively and instinctively understand about the human experience. We might understand nothing at all about being a middle-aged alcoholic agent but when Le Carre makes a move everything in our gut tells us it’s exactly as it is in the part of the human story where we are all participants. All the internal cogs fit together, meaningfully, and because they do, the machinery powers up and runs on its own momentum.

All because of what goes into that opening scene.

This is what opens the door through which we and Leamas must enter the story. In this opening Le Carre pulls off the other definition of true:

verb
 
  1. 1.
    bring (an object, wheel, or other construction) into the exact shape, alignment, or position required.

As writers we should all aim for that kind of true in fiction. It’s not an inert noun, but a verb. It’s dynamic. It requires something of us, writer and reader alike. Readers care because we recognise in this story and other masterpieces the exact shape, alignment, and position required to communicate human beingness back to us.

Leamas’ moral victory, the most important of his life, must come at the cost of his world (and life), the very conditions set up right at the beginning of the novel. Smiley and The Circus get what they want. Mundt gets what he wants. All this comes at the cost of Leamas and Gold, but even they, too, get what they want: to know love in one another.

What’s so beautiful about it all is that while it’s inevitable, it’s neither predictable nor prescriptive.

Writers – especially those who have come up in the age of narcissism – haven’t figured out how to get much past themselves to offer readers something about themselves. Writer and reader connect when the writer expresses something that also communicates meaning for the reader.

Because that moment – that perfect, beautiful set-up at the beginning of the story, the in medias res – ?

That’s the writer preparing us, not just the story. It’s saying: this is what true looks like. Buckle up.

The next time you’re done reading a novel, go back to the opening scene and check out how contextually relevant it is to what went on in the story. If it’s a particular genre, compare it to a masterpiece of that genre, and how those stories open. Guaranteed the masterpiece is the set-up of a world at a collision point, out of which the character has evolved and the destruction of which proves the test of everything the character had understood about Life and her/his own life.

It’s that in medias res set-up that determines how the character will face it, and what the outcome must be. It’s all interdependent. If it isn’t, nobody will want to read your story because it simply won’t be true.

So how will you create in your in medias res the exact shape, alignment, and position to tell a true story?

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Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

Prompts: The Brainworm Of Voice

If you’re using writing prompts to help fire up the creative synapses, they are likely doing more harm than good, especially if you don’t understand why.

Confession: I hate prompts, if you haven’t already guessed. I despise everything about them.

And because I google the term for research, the gods of algorithm think I must like them a whole lot because suddenly they appear in all my feeds, and not being all that tech savvy I have no idea how to cull them. Seeing them makes my teeth hurt.

Prompts make me want to use the F word. Normally I reserve the F word for unique situations prompting my raging, blood-coloured wrath. And now, prompts.

False.

There. I said it. (Please don’t think less of me).

I’ve increasingly become of the mind that writers must be zealously protective of their own voice, and defiant about outside influence to the point of phobia.

For that reason, prompts are like one of those amoebic brain diseases you get when you’re minding your own business enjoying your tropical vacation. Then – BAM! – half your brain is gone and suddenly you can’t do your own taxes anymore.

It changes who you are.

Prompts come from someone else’s mental space, someone else’s story, someone else’s experiential and perceptual scaffolding.

Someone else’s voice.

As soon as you start answering to a prompt, no matter how benign it might be, you’re moving away from your own voice and individuality, your own originality, your own story, your own possibilities.

Next thing you know you’re Star Trek‘s USS Voyager lost in the Delta Quadrant and, like the hapless Federation vessel, while it took nothing to get pushed tens of thousands of light years from home it will require a potential lifetime, a series of improbable misadventures, luck, and a major con job perpetrated by Future Old You against the Borg Queen just to get back to where you started, and if some unsuspecting redshirt ensign has to die along the way, it’s going to be you.

Writing is not like a parade where some clown broadcasts fistfuls of candy while we toddle around like drooling idiots hoping to get more than the next kid.

We’re bloodhounds on a scent trail. That scent trail represents the stories that are in us to tell. Prompts act like some perp planting false scents to take us off the trail so we never find our mark.

If you’re unable to find anything to write about unless someone prompts you, you need to ask yourself if this is the right road for you. Any teacher who thinks prompts are actually helping (because any writing is good writing, right?) is probably not very knowledgeable about issues around Voice and originality.

Writers should be following our own instincts, our own storylines. Everything that exists to pour into a story should well up from within our own internal resources and personal inspirations. It’s the only hope we have to earn Voice, and thus our uniqueness and originality.

Try picturing Graham Greene responding to this: Tell the story of Hallowe’en from the perspective of a piece of candy. (Thanks, writingprompts.tumblr.com).

Having said that, if you must use them here’s my take on how to avoid allowing them to become developmental poison to you as a writer as well as your projects.

Never use anything but a neutral, non-intrusive prompt. If you have a teacher trying to strong-arm you into anything but, refuse.

Don’t do it.

A neutral prompt is one that introduces minimal outside influence or undesirable voice, ideas, style, or tone into the writer’s work. These would mostly be one word prompts, and are so nondescript they can be easily inserted into any story idea.

Door.

Bread.

But. BUT…

Even that seemingly innocent prompt could take you away from the story that’s waiting inside you to be told anyway. That prompt could end up being a creative McGuffin, a false lead that takes you on the wrong scent trail, the wrong conclusions.

That’s not even the scariest part. Most of the time there’s a prompt list made available as though giving you an option among many is the good part.

  • Outside the Window
  • The Unrequited love poem
  • The Vessel
  • Dancing
  • Food
  • Eye Contact
  • The Rocket-ship
  • Dream-catcher
  • Animals
  • Friendship

(courtesy of thinkwritten.com)

That. That right there is a narrative brainworm. All those specific words – together – came from someone else’s subconscious core, biases, and perceptions. Those words have a deeply subconscious meaning to the prompt creator, not you. They will never be about you or your own originality and Voice.

Prompts are always about the prompt creator. As a result your mental space has just been subconsciously hijacked by someone else. Whatever your story is, this annoyance is now in your way whether you like it or not, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

Say you’re writing about your expedition into the Amazon in search of your grandparents’ story after they died of gullibility in the great mythic rubber fields of Fordlandia. But say you’re all bunged up creatively and you enroll in some writing class hoping to git ‘er done.

So you sit down eagerly rubbing your hands together awaiting instruction. Teacher says, “I want five hundred words on the writing prompt he suffered from personal anarchy. Go. (taken directly from @writingprompt on Twitter).

Personal. Anarchy.

Really?

Oh, I’d go all right. Straight out the door.

I mean, seriously, people?

(Serenity now, serenity now.)

Right.

That’s not just an intrusive prompt, it’s patently awful. It’s highly suggestive of someone else’s (very questionable) voice, thinking, ideas, and tone.

No prompt should ever take you away from the possibility of telling your story your way. As soon as you let someone else’s voice dictate anything in your work, you’re doomed.

And what if it is a simple prompt like bread? What if it starts you thinking about food symbolism, and you go off on this tangent about the body of Christ and breaking bread with someone?

What effect does that have if a circle metaphor would have worked far better to support your story and characters?

Deep down, those are very different symbols with different allusions. Getting it wrong could throw the context of your entire story off kilter. Readers have a gut instinct for wrongness even if they can’t pinpoint its sources.

It’s so easy to lose your voice, and so very, very hard to regain it.

If you need inspiration, trust your own gut and your own developing Voice. Just look around your world, what matters to you. Use anything that speaks to you when you’re stuck. It’s that speaking part that’s coming from the core of who you are that matters most, and it will lead you on your own journey.

Because then, what you’re writing about – whatever it is – has already begun taking you to the next part of your journey, and because you’re bringing that speaking part along with you, it will add itself as a vital part of the whole, assuring that not a single step in your personal journey as a writer has been wasted.

Do that, and the story inside you will begin to emerge right alongside your authentic Voice.

Trust you.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

The Story Analyst: The Magic Of Context

Before you can tell a character’s story, you have to understand how context creates that particular kind of individual with the specific power to influence the world they inhabit, and thus drive narrative.

Take a look at the list below, then try to identify the novel it describes:

  • Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions
  • Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love
  • With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules
  • She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is
  • An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society
  • They have one daughter together
  • The end of a pregnancy almost kills her
  • Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand
  • Influential people in their social circle turn their backs on them
  • She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side
  • Others pay a heavy price for their choices
  • His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love
  • In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices

Now, with a few tweaks on the details this could describe just about any romance novel out there. But this isn’t just any novel out there.

In fact, it’s not even just one novel, it’s two very distinct narratives, one occupying the literary end of the spectrum, the other genre.

How can this be? How can a single, very specific summary fit two totally unique novels?

And get away with it.

And produce two masterpieces.

If you haven’t already guessed, the two novels are Anna Karenina and Gone With The Wind.

How did this happen and still work?

Context.

Every single detail of both novels bears specific and perfect working agency for each particular narrative. Agency is a kind of inherent power to influence, in this case in a fictional context.

So how does context work in fiction? Say you took the same narrative summary and superimposed it into Hollywood circa, oh, just now. How would those summary details muscle through?

For laughs, let’s call our fake novel Anna Kardashian and take on context point by point.

  1. Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions:  … so, um … going against Hollywood’s conventions would take our Anna into the realm of .. morals? and sexual decency? Okkaay, sssure.
  2. Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love: Let’s call him Brhatt Pittsky. He’s an amoral/immoral frat boy she meets at a kegger. Brhatt’s been with some whores in the past but he doesn’t really need them because he can always find girls willing to do the same things for free, so he saves a ton of money that way. To complicate things, one of the girls he uses for booty calls loves him and might/might not already have a child with him. Brhatt’s sole objective is to take Anna’s virginity even though she’s in love with a narcissistic rapper, Kanyley Welkes, who she thinks is totally fabs because of his pseudo-religious prosperity rap message. Unfortunately, although Kanyley is hot for Anna, he doesn’t really love her and wants to marry his cousin to keep it in the family. Brhatt goes after Anna with everything he’s got.
  3. With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules: Ooh, this is getting sticky already. So Brhatt does everything possible to get Anna to let her guard down, showing up at parties and getting friends to manipulate contact until she responds to his intense pressure. He super wants to video himself taking her virginity and gets her alone unchaperoned one night and convinces her that anything that feels so goooood has to be approved by God. When he goes to tape it, he accidentally presses the wrong button on his smartphone and instead of taking a video he ends up with a very blurry nightvision image of his butt crack. 
  4. She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is: Her motto is: WTF? LOL!
  5. An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society: she goes clubbing and, unlike everyone else, is not taking obscene selfies of public sex acts, nor snorting mountains of coke. Once their social circle finds out she’s a virgin, from then on that’s all anyone posts about on FB. Brhatt’s friends make up some pretty funny memes about it too, using Photoshop to superimpose Pepe the Frog’s face over hers to show how virgins have to be ugly to be virgins. None of the memes go viral, though.
  6. They have one daughter together: Of course, she gets pregnant her first time, and of course he denies he’s the babydaddy and demands a paternity test. And of course because the Bible says once you fornicate with someone you’re bonded to them for life, she realises she loves him and dedicates herself 100% to the relationship.
  7. The end of a pregnancy almost kills her: When her latest pics of the nursery and her mason jar crafts on Pinterest do not go viral she can’t deal and goes on clonazepam. Guys, it was super, super hard.
  8. Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand: Because they’ve already fornicated, she moves in with him figuring it’s as good as marriage in God’s eyes. She tries to withhold sex so she doesn’t feel bad about herself for continuing to fornicate but he pressures her to do gross stuff that makes her puke and also causes such severe sphincteral atrophy that she needs rectal surgery to prevent excrement from continuously leaking out, but at least it’s not technically fornication. Her frigidity drives him to shag (that’s what the cool kids are calling it these days, right?) his booty-call buddy more regularly, and Anna starts getting paranoid about how much Brhatt truly loves her.
  9. Influential people in their social circle refuse to receive them: Obvs! She smells like feces all the time. His rapey frat-boy friends hate her guts more because she thinks they’re a bad influence and won’t let them in the house, thus preventing them from gang-raping her for a rape-fantasy porno they want to post to PornHub.
  10. She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side: A mousy sister-in-law whose only interest is children and housekeeping. She doesn’t actually so much as stand by her side as just not get all judgey.
  11. Others pay a heavy price for their choices: Her friends say she makes them feel bad and guilty and shameful about all their out-of-wedlock pregnancies with different babydaddies and the drug use, and they wish she would stop being so high and mighty.  And also do something about the rectal leakage. His friends are sick of them both for getting in the way of their viral-porn careers.
  12. His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love: After trying for too long to undermine her morals and get her to finally do that porno his friends think they can sell on PornHub, he finally does rape her in earnest, then sends pics out in an act of revenge porn. She finally realises that even though they’ve fornicated God will forgive her if she breaks up with him. Probably. But then in an epic turnaround Brhatt realises he likes Anna a little. It makes him sad, but not really.
  13. In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices: she requires years of therapy and corrective rectal surgery but otherwise just coasts along, eventually getting ultra-religious and distributing L. Ron Hubbard tracts for Scientology. He never finds fame and fortune with his revenge porn which, buried in an ocean of horrific, galling sexual imagery, never, sadly, goes viral. He blames her for his failure. She spends the rest of her life and her family’s fortune hiring lawyers to get the revenge porn images off the net but even after years and decades somehow they always manage to surface. The guy she’s living with, though, is super, super supportive and so sweet. LOL!

Yeah, pretty much the same, no?

The worlds from which Tolstoy and Mitchell drew not only created their particular heroines and all the bit players, those worlds made it possible to drive powerful narrative through context. The characters have agency because the contexts have agency and thus provide it to them.

In a Hollywood context – morally, spiritually, politically, economically – Anna Kardashian could not have been created in a way that might have driven her to Anna Karenina’s particular end. Hollywood has no moral or spiritual or social power to realistically or even hypocritically control, ostracize, and destroy one of their own over an extramarital affair and having a child out of wedlock, or for a defiant need for autonomy when that’s the accepted norm. This strips away the agency of any possible suicide, as well as its power as an end. Oh, Anna Kardashian might still have committed suicide but not with the same causal agency derived from the institutional pressures that snuffed out Anna Karenina’s freedom to choose as a human being and as a woman. Her world had her completely boxed in to an impossible corner, out of which suicide was the only truly autonomous choice she had left, and the only freedom. That’s not within the realm of Anna Kardashian’s story at all, and couldn’t be.

You could try working the morality/sexual decency angle against the business-as-usual moral degeneracy of LaLa Land but a socialite with money in today’s Hollywood has more power to turn away from that influence than anyone else in this life. She is not trapped anywhere by anyone, even if her parents or a trust controls the purse strings. If she finds degeneracy too overwhelming she can find belonging and a moral home elsewhere. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, kept ignorant and uneducated by her society, was powerless to survive alone without her husband’s or her lover’s wealth, nor the isolation of a social world that rejected her absolutely.

Now, make her a Muslim woman in ISIL-controlled Mosul or Saudi Arabia and we can start talking about the power social, economic, and cultural conditions have to control a woman’s autonomy when that woman isn’t even allowed to set foot in the street without a related male chaperone, nor drive a car, nor hold her own passport.

Not in Hollywood, though.

Similarly, the contrast between the decadent antebellum South and the Civil War’s brutality (as well as its devastating economic and social effects) create then drive Scarlett and all the others in the story toward their outcomes. Just as the combination of her low Irish and aristocratic coastal French lineages provide her with the “gumption” that allows her to both understand and navigate her rarified world then survive when it falls, the inbred Southern aristocracy of Ashley and Melanie makes it impossible for them to survive on their own when their world is stripped of its beauty and grace. Rhett, too, as a reject of that world, becomes detached from its value and autonomously survives on his own terms, allowing him to manipulate Scarlett into doing the same except with consequences he doesn’t foresee (because she is not entirely like him, and he is not as entirely unlike his world).

Not even the LA Riots visited the total destruction of a way of life represented in GWTW to provide a modern equivalent of Mitchell’s complex statement about character and survival.

It’s the conflicted pressures of those contexts that propel Anna to her final scene. The antebellum/post-Civil-War South contexts created Scarlett O’Hara, and for the same reasons Anna is driven toward her suicidal end, context makes that same ending for Scarlett impossible.

In fact, in great fiction the opening lines and scene become the absolute nexus point of all those contexts, out of which the story runs like a torrent on its own power.

Take context away and the only power a story has left is plot and writing style, and those are almost never enough to carry a narrative without leaving the reader feeling like they just ate a meal that was mostly carbs and empty calories.

Why is context so important? Because it’s the way life works, and the best stories tell us the most about ourselves and our world in the best possible ways. Every single experience we have, our history, our culture and social/familial conditions create the context from which our very being arises. And because they create us, they create the directions in which we’re pushed and pulled, and they create within us the agency (or lack of it) to either react from basic animal instinct or respond as conscious beings to whatever happens to us.

Get context wrong or ignore it, and you signal to readers that you don’t understand much about life or people, or that you’re a simple-minded fool.

Take a look at how context has worked in your life and in the lives of the people you know. How are you giving your stories the contextual substance necessary for the kind of agency and self-propelling momentum that can get readers truly engaged with your story?

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Why Is It So Hard To Get Published or Find An Audience?

bbqanalogy

Necessary parts? Check. Snazzy image of what it’s supposed to look like in the end? Check. Tools? Check. Handy-dandy instruction manual? Check. Armchair generals? Check. Know-how (you’ve used a hammer before) – aaand check.

Yet somehow it’s not working. Where’s the disconnect between the job you think you’ve done and the one you actually did? Where does it all go wrong to make publishers’ veins pop, and drive readers straight to Netflix?

  1. COMPONENTS: Having all the necessary parts is not the same as understanding what they’re for and how they all fit together. Most writers are task literate (composition) but process illiterate (narrative), which makes getting from beautiful image to beautiful finished product extremely challenging if not impossible. Putting a story together doesn’t make the bits and pieces mean something developmentally, whether the plotting dominoes seem to all line up or there’s minimal plot. That’s what writers get so wrong. But don’t feel bad. Most published fiction demonstrates the same process illiteracy (yes, even famous writers), which is why a novel might tank; the writer’s high-level task literacy blinds publishers to the novel’s deeper infrastructural deficits. Sometimes, the publisher mistakes a pile of random garbage for a highly experimental and non-linear work of art. Readers know otherwise, though. In the aggregate, they know the difference between a pile of random garbage and, say, The Sound And The Fury.
  2. PERSPECTIVE: You don’t have the right perspective to understand how the image in your head will become the thing itself. This is not your fault. You came to the project impeded by the notion that as long as you had tools and instructions you could get results, but nobody taught you how to see holistically and strategically like an architect and engineer instead of just a putterer or, at best, a builder.
  3. TOOLS: The best tools in the world mean nothing if you don’t know what you’re doing or how to get them to work for you. But what if the project calls for tools you didn’t even know existed: you don’t know what they are, where you can get them, or how to use them. How can any project come to fruition with such an impediment? Most possess only the most rudimentary tools. For writers the toolbox might contain lexical, syntactical, scenic, and symbolic tools. What you really need in order to do well, though, is not even on the radar or in your budget (because, believe it or not, projects of this nature require a certain amount of investment).  So you end up taking a short cut trying to use a Phillips head when you really need a spline drive, with all the expected results. For writers, that means having minimal (but mostly zero) developmental or narrative tools available.
  4. INSTRUCTIONS: Instructions are always torture because they’re generalized and have been filtered through the mind of someone who isn’t you, therefore your specific process and task illiteracy are contaminated and obstructed by their general process and task literacy. In the end this difference will cost you in terms of excess or missing parts and a poor quality outcome. And why wouldn’t it? Truly, the project isn’t really yours anyhow, is it?
  5. ARMCHAIR GENERALS: What armchair generals see is based on what they know, not on who you are or what your project is about. Unlike instruction-makers, the problem with armchair generals is that they likely don’t know more than you, and possibly less. They’d be shouting the same things from the comfort of their armchairs no matter what, so any advice will not likely help you be more knowledgeable or produce a more meaningful outcome.
  6. KNOW-HOW: Maybe this is about skill, maybe it’s about talent. Or both. Take a look at some of the DIY web sites out there (I’m looking at you Hometalk, you endless click-baity letdown) and you’ll notice some people who put an excruciating, unconscionable amount of effort and time into creating something awful. All the know-how is there but what they do with it and the direction they take it is just mind-bogglingly senseless, adding nothing to the sum of things for anyone but themselves. Well, writing isn’t a project hanging on the rec room wall for personal pleasure. Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as long as that eye is yours and yours alone – or the five people in the world with your exact aesthetic sensibilities or sufficient pity for your dedication and passion. No. Writers must share, and relate, and make others see the worth and meaning of what they see and what they’ve created. If you can’t do that, if you’re the only one who sees it or you can’t make anyone else see it, maybe you’re just not made for this work. You should not be making this dang thing in the first place. So just slowly back away before someone gets hurt. Chances are, it’ll be you.

 

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The Relationship Between Structure, Technique, And Development

What writers tend to do to put together a story:

                           Image result for wooden blocks                            

Linear                                  Non-linear                                 Abstract

But this is how writers should understand fiction creation:

                                        

Linear                              Non-linear                                        Abstract


Delivery structure as well as compositional technique (like stream-of-consciousness, for example), shouldn’t change the Big Picture. No matter how you present your story, it should still be something. That “something” is the role narrative development plays. It’s what helps the reader process the presentation in order to understand, ultimately, the story as a whole.

Otherwise what is it but a jumble of nonsense?

Here’s why:

Linear:

The writer leaves the least amount of work for the reader in interpreting the story vision. Each part is distinct and fits into a conjoining part because individually and together they add up to something unique and specific to give shape to a coherent, holistic narrative creation. Delivery structure and narrative infrastructure are closely paralleled, and narrative benchmarks are met point by point. 

Non-Linear

The writer purposefully re-orders (as opposed to disorders) sections of the story to control how and what the reader interprets, usually to heighten tension and suspense or to make a philosophical, stylistic, or symbolic point. The non-linear technique is not random or based on whim. Delivery structure and narrative infrastructure are not paralleled, and where benchmarks are not fully met, point by point, they are suggested, hinted, or left to be intuited.

Abstract

The writer fragments the story and leaves only select pieces for the reader to interpret in an almost archaeological or forensic fashion. Abstract narrative is not built on incoherence or chaos; rather, the writer works from a complete developmental vision then deliberately chooses, for artistic, philosophical, or symbolic reasons how to let the reader experience it. Delivery structure and narrative infrastructure are not paralleled, and benchmarks are not fully met point by point; some are suggested, hinted, or intuited; the rest is a deliberate omission. Never does the writer lose control of coherence developmentally.


This analogy helps writers understand the difference between story development that’s just writing and plot, and story development that has an overarching purpose.

Regardless which technique you use to convey your narrative, it still has to be a story in the same way an intact skeleton, a disassembled skeleton, and skeletal fragments are all still a human skeleton.

Most writers approach storytelling like stacking and ordering blocks without ever realizing that despite plotting that makes the story seem coherent, there is no ultimate vision being imparted.

Storytelling delivers the writer’s vision .

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Hilarious: Jane Austen Gets The Old Writing-Workshop Makeover

SCEW - SC iconWho among us hasn’t been on the receiving end of – and dealt – such an incisive critique? Read, weep:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/shannonreed/jane-austen-receives-feedback-from-tim-a-guy-in-her-mfa-work#.atQrxBVg7

My game-changing story development system is soon to be launched on Kickstarter, so if you want to get updated so you can be among the first to change how you create stories, please subscribe to or follow this blog.

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The Story Analyst: The Loveliest Trick Of The Devil

SCEW - SC iconIt’s pretty amazing to pull off. If you can pull it off. Make the POV character appear to be the protagonist so convincingly that the only way anyone would ever notice s/he is actually the antagonist is to re-read the story with a mental focus on someone else.

The quote is from The Generous Gambler by Charles Baudelaire: “The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!” If you’re a writer and you can disguise your antagonist as a protagonist, you can convince readers to look elsewhere for the story’s devilment. By doing so you’ve created an undercurrent of such angst that it keeps readers digging right through to the back of the story trying to figure out the source of their uneasiness.

But like anything that makes us feel that way, we just have to make it go away, to resolve it somehow. But even when you find out, you’re left with a permanent sense of self-doubt about who’s the real devil.

In my last Story Analyst post, The Second Glance, I discussed how Margaret Mitchell did such a thorough job convincing readers that Scarlett O’Hara is a proto-feminist survivor and hero of phoenix-like power who has been a role-model for millions of women, especially those who faced the Great Depression and WWII, that it isn’t until you look at the story through Rhett’s choices that you realize there’s something very different going on – and it’s so much darker and more sinister than readers realize.

This is playing with storytelling DNA. It’s the epigenetics that runs deep in the molecular matter of powerful, memorable narratives that no plot twist could ever equal. Plot twists merely change a story’s outcome. Great storytelling DNA allows writers to flip a switch through this epigenetic quality that changes what the story is depending on how you look at it. It’s not just the appearance of one thing until the end confirms the trick, like a Shyamalan movie. It’s simultaneously different stories.

In The Virgin Suicides [spoiler alert: plot points and ending will be discussed], when Jeffrey Eugenides introduces us to the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys who witness the tragedy of the Lisbon family, it’s very easy to get so caught up in the fact that we’re being told this story from their perspective that we assume their role is that of any ordinary narrator – the protagonists in a story about their efforts to understand what happened in the house across the street (I’ll refer to the narrators in plural, although it’s never entirely clear).

But Eugenides does something so clever – or intuitive – and subtle that it’s never even mentioned when you read reviews or critiques.

The narrators are not protagonists. The narrators are the antagonists.

They’re sexual predators.

While they’re busy asking themselves what was wrong with the Lisbon girls, we should be asking ourselves what’s wrong with these boys and, potentially, boys. Period.

After all, they are as a narrator a multi-headed beast, the collective “we”. A Chimera.

What we’re convinced by the narrators is fascination with a family of beautiful girls is actually a lurid and dehumanizing sexual obsession. It’s a prolonged, concentrated, group violation on the sisters during a period of their sexual formation that slowly chips away at their sense of security, privacy, integrity, selfhood, sexuality, and identity – as all violation does – until their damage is so irrevocable that suicide is the only way they can escape the torture that’s described to us in such passionate and delighted terms. And like all sexual violence, the community shares blame by doing nothing about what’s going on. Boys will be boys, right?

Check out the first scene. Cecilia the Stoic is floating in the bloody water of the tub after having slit her wrists, with a laminated “picture of the Virgin Mary … held against her budding chest.” Spirituality and sexuality together are an important cue for what we’re about to experience; they are not just dichotomies which, taken to extremes, are devastating, they are also inextricable binaries that bleed into one another. Repression and profligacy, denial and dogma. The boys and the Lisbon parents play out this drama in tandem, trapping the girls, squeezing the humanity and life out of them from both ends.

Every single detail matters symbolically to the story, even the fact that the picture is laminated.

By linking this imagery, Eugenides is already revealing the terrible source of the sisters’ pain, and by using the term Stoic (as opposed to stoic) right off the bat he’s instructing us to not look at the story based on what we are told, but by what we witness of the players’ behaviors. That’s what Stoicism is, and it’s an important revelation to place right there at the beginning.

The story is so richly written that there’s hardly a thing a reader dares ignore – even Mary in her bedroom window, captured in a real estate photo looking as if her hair were on fire like Lavinia standing at the sacrificial altar from the Aeneid.

(Oh dear fellow writers, this is why you must know your legends and mythologies and biblical accounts! Details like this make you want to snatch Eugenides by his soul patch and kiss him straight on the … forehead? Forehead. I wouldn’t take any liberties, after all.)

The boys’ focus on the girls is expressed with a robust enthusiasm that makes the reader lose sight of what’s actually happening.

Now, instead of teenage boys, let’s exchange the narrators for a group of neighbourhood men and see how it would make any woman feel.

They watch the house, look into the windows.  They know intimately the Lisbons’ comings and goings. They watch them from their own homes. The girls are their masturbatory aids.

When one of the boys is invited to dinner, the entire experience is framed through the narrators’ sexualized interpretation. If the girls are kicking him under the table, it isn’t just youthful goofing around. It’s sexual. It’s arousing. When the boy goes upstairs to use the bathroom he violates their privacy and sanctity by making a creepily detailed inventory of their rooms (the bra hanging on the crucifix reinforces the spirituality/sexuality binary) and the contents of the bathroom, right down to the shade of lipstick they are able to match to its owner when they spy on her later. Which is disturbingly specific. He digs into the trash and finds a used tampon – something the narrators sickeningly find titillating, like the handkerchiefs dipped in blood after an execution and kept as a souvenir.

One of the boys crawls through the sewage system to break into the house with the intention of watching them shower and to spy on them in their most intimate moments. When he hears water running he enters the bathroom without hesitation . He’s on the hunt, that’s what he’s there for. There is no question of his entitlement in this act.

Imagine someone doing that to your home, your private, personal space invaded by someone who is willing to permanently cripple your sense of safety, privacy, and feelings, just so he can watch you shower. It’s so rapey it should send chills down the readers’ spines. But it doesn’t. Like all other aspects of rape culture, even in its infancy stage (which this novel perfectly illustrates) our only response has always been going blind, deaf, and mute in its presence.

So the boy walks in on the opening scene of the book – Cecilia naked in the bath, covered in blood from her slit wrists.

Now, by this time the boys have been watching and sexually abusing the girls for quite a long time. This is not a new development. There’s no way the family – or at least the girls – would be unaware of the lewd interest always directed at them.The boys have opened their pants and exposed themselves to Cecilia. They have looked up her dress. Transgression is their norm. It’s our norm.

After the funeral – of a thirteen year old girl – another boy admits he “would have copped a last feel … if only [the others] had been there to appreciate it.” They enlist a neighbourhood girl to take inventory of Cecilia’s bedroom post-suicide, even checking to see if the sheets have been cleaned, what’s in her underwear drawers.

Even in these moments of finality, the narrators’ prey is denied her own space, sanctity, dignity, and peace.

They further impinge on her right to respect by getting hold of her diary, stolen by a plumber’s assistant, and pass it around, fingering it like porn instead of returning it to the family. Even the sisters’ medical records are later breached as the boys grow up and research every aspect of their lives in their increasing fetishization.

The high school bad-boy, Trip Fontaine, later tells the boys he loved Lux like he’d never known love before or since, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Yet he pursues her relentlessly until she finally finds herself on the football field on prom night losing her virginity to him. She awakens there in the morning alone. Despite his claim that he never loved anyone the way he loved Lux, he abandons her after sex and discards her there on the field like a used condom, then never speaks to her again – or even sees her.

Stoic. We must look at the actions, not the words.

On and on it goes, a portrait of boys so secure in their romanticized depravity and their right to it that even we the readers grow too fascinated by the Lisbon girls to really notice much more than a faint cringiness as we’re reading.

Violation is the norm. The knife-sharpener delivers a fifteen minute demonstration just to leer at fourteen-year-old Lux sunbathing in a bikini. Fourteen.

Each of the girls is a casualty of these experiences. Set up against the increasing repression and break-down of their parents, they react in ways that any rape or sexual assault victim – or any therapist – will agree are credible: depersonalizing, disengaging, becoming hypersexual, disappearing into faith or mysticism.

With each progressive assault on their privacy, burgeoning identity, and sexuality, the girls go from being normal, healthy, vibrant young women to depressed, disconnected, and suicidal.

None of this happens until the boys begin to essentially violate them – sexually or otherwise – on a continuous basis. The girls are their sexual fantasies and little else, a living, breathing pornography that requires no consent, and no humanity.

Is it any wonder the girls invite the boys over to return the violation: they use the boys’ blind lust to lure them to the house where each girl one by one commits suicide right under their noses. It’s the only way the sisters can regain their power as women and as human beings.

This is a story about a group of boys’ sexual awakening at someone else’s expense. When, finally, they ask themselves if they contributed to what happened, the only conclusion is no, they didn’t.

Of course not.

Look at the way those girls acted. Look at the way they dressed.

They weren’t just asking for it. They were begging …

Bravo, Eugenides. That was truly the loveliest trick of all. Your readers thank you.

Writers, how about it? Could you pull it off?

 

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The Story Analyst: The Second Glance

SCEW - SC iconYou know that quality in the stories you love, and love to read over and over – the quality that almost sends little electric shocks into the story-center of your brain? Ever wonder what that is?

And yes, there is a scientifically proven story-stimulus center in your brain called the corpus fabella, and it’s right at the center of the middle commissure –

Not really, but some day I’m sure such an area of the brain will be found.

Anyhow, let’s explore where those little shocks come from in narrative, and what it has to do with our lifelong love of certain stories.

I’m going to use Gone With The Wind here as an example, because it’s probably the most known story on the entire planet. Now, I’m not talking about the movie. The movie is just a surface treatment of the story, and excellent as it is, much has been lost of Mitchell’s detailed subtleties and meticulous character development.

For generations everyone has seen the story from the perspective of Scarlett the survivor. She’s got the gumption. She remakes herself into a civil-war phoenix. Since the Great depression, women everywhere have admired and emulated her moxie and strength. People used to break bookstore windows just to steal the display copy, touching nothing else in the store, nor any other book in the display.

When was the last time you heard anyone have that reaction to a book? Well, as much as literary snobs like to deride GWTW for various obvious reasons, there are also compelling reasons it has lasted as long as it has.

It’s not what it appears to be.

In fact, there’s something very dark going on under the surface. It’s hidden in full view, but its energy is part of what leaves the reader tingling in stories like these, without ever being able to identify what exactly delivers the electric shock.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll unearth a startlingly different story if you look at Rhett’s actions. Starting with the introductory rumor at the Twelve Oaks BBQ that as a youth Rhett took a girl riding without a chaperone, ruined her (whatever that means, but we’re assured no there was no baby), then refused to marry her. This introduces us to Rhett’s attitude toward women, social mores, and marriage, all in one anecdote. Oh, and plus he looks at Scarlett as though he sees her without her “shimmy” on, which suggests his raw sexual interest in her. This is the first moment that links Scarlett to “ruined women” through Rhett, and it’s Mitchell’s promise to the reader that Scarlett will be ruined. Besides war, Rhett is Scarlett’s most important apocalypse.

Contrast all that with Rhett’s deference and respect for Melanie, Scarlett’s polar opposite temperamentally (who also embodies the qualities Scarlett loves most in her own mother and wishes but fails to emulate), and the one woman in the world she hates most. Rhett has no respect for Scarlett, but he also has no sexual interest in “ladies” of his own social class whom he can respect. Neither can he seem to truly honour any “lady” with sexual qualities.

The next woman to whom we’re introduced through Rhett is Belle Watling, Scarlett’s polar opposite socially. Notice the subtle positioning of Scarlett’s social identity as a Southern Belle against the prostitute’s deliberate naming. Notice, further, the connection between Scarlett and “the scarlet woman” – the whore of Babylon or, in this case, Atlanta, who is destroyed by the beast with seven heads and ten horns. Rhett is continually described by the qualities of his head. The ten horns – well, you can figure that one out.

Mitchell drops these little literary squibs into the story to tell us something we hardly notice, yet their bursts together are far more important than the story we all think we know.

Rhett compares Scarlett to Belle. The problem is that Scarlett belongs to a social caste that makes her unattainable to him because of his “fallen” status. And the problem with Belle, whom he seems to love AND respect, is that she’s an illiterate white trash prostitute who’s no lady, and he’s still at his very core a Southern gentleman. As a partner she is completely unacceptable. All his social interactions with her are through her bordello and behind closed doors. They are never seen together in public, though continuously connected because it’s Rhett who owns the bordello, whose carriage she drives, whose handkerchiefs she uses, and to whom she has entrusted the care of her son – who may or may not be Rhett’s child as well.

No matter how hard Rhett rejects his caste and culture, it’s part of who he is. We see how deeply this is entrenched when he actually leaves Scarlett on the road to Tara to join the Confederates for their final suicidal push despite how he despises the Cause. We see this when he courts Melanie’s respect and loyalty then, after Bonnie is born, he works at regaining his reputation so she can have the very social position he has openly reviled all along. Even in the end, when he’s walking out on Scarlett for the last time, it’s to return to his people to try to find what he’s lost of the gentility and decency he himself has gone out of his way to destroy – in Scarlett as much as his own life. All without a single pang of conscience – or even awareness – of his own role in creating her to begin with.

None of this deep-running caste identity matters, though. Rhett is a social outcast, ruined. He can never truly be part of decent society again. Not in that world, anyhow.

In GWTW we are not watching the slow growth of a naive narcissist into a hard-headed business woman and survivor. Oh no. What we’re witnessing without really realizing it is Rhett’s deliberate, methodical breakdown of Scarlett into the kind of woman he can possess only by destroying her. He can’t have Belle – ever – because he can never lower himself enough as a Southern gentleman to legitimize her. Neither can he remove her from the society that has rejected them both – say, West where their reputations won’t follow them or won’t matter – because he’s too rooted. But what he can do is take a fool like Scarlett, who comes from his own caste or in fact one slightly lower, and remake her into a socially acceptable Belle – the scarlett woman and “counterfeit bride” he deserves.

This isn’t just subtle suggestion either. He says it over and over, and in fact warns her off at one point because he tells her he’s destroying her. But she’s such a vain, self-absorbed child that she – and we the readers – fail to notice. We’re too wrapped up in her scheming and electrifying personality to notice that even her scheming is being manipulated from the sidelines by Rhett to a large extent.

All this adds a dark energy to the story, which readers feel but can’t specifically identify. Nobody ever sees GWTW as the story of a woman’s slow ruin at the hands of a master manipulator, a predator, and, quite possibly, a sociopath. We’re too blinded by what’s going on at the surface to see it but it runs through the very depths of the story with a kind of self-sustaining power.

It’s a darkness and an energy that keeps the reader off balance enough to return to the story over and over in order to understand why, no matter how many times we’ve read it, we still question and doubt, we still can’t see it clearly enough, nor can we ever know for sure if we got it right.

We don’t know how we’ve come to care for these characters – the kinds of people most of us might not even want as friends or to date or marry. In fact, look deeply enough and you’ll find that they’re all pathetic, pathological fools.

Just like us.

We cheer for them, and despite how they’ve chipped away at and tortured each other through three inches of paper and binding, we insist on fantasizing that they’ll still get back together a few pages after the end not because they’re both horrible, disturbed people who deserve each other and shouldn’t be inflicted on anyone else, but because we’ve been unable to engage our critical thinking for a single moment since “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful” (a fact to which we also seem to blind ourselves exactly one sentence later and for the rest of the story – as indeed, we are caught by her charms), and have thus convinced ourselves that what has just happened is love – and one of the greatest romances ever.

It’s this dark center in the story that keeps GWTW from floating off into the ether of a pulp romance. It’s not what it seems to be. You can tear off layer after layer and find something more, but because we’re so enraptured by the surface energy of these tantalizing characters, we fail to notice another kind of shiver pulsing down our spines, and that’s the scary, mutually destructive risk of love.

After the initial read with stories like these, something tugs at us so we go back and find more, then the tugging happens again and we go back to find still more.

Within the powerful surface story of survival and love is layer upon layer of electrically charged deeper realities that tell us more and more about who we are. Mitchell was a powerful observer of family life and character, but she writes it all with such gusto that we develop a love and devotion to the very kinds of people we can’t tolerate when we run across them in our own lives, and in doing so she’s freeing us of our own resistance to the faults and failures of others to show us that we are all stories of love and survival.

But at what cost?

So we dig through these surface narratives to learn what those costs can be.

That’s the second glance.

That’s what great writers offer their readers.

 

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The Writing Paradigm, The Story-Mind, And The Fallacy Behind Asking “Who Is My Reader?”

SCEW - SC iconLittle by little, as narrative has transitioned from a means of interpreting human experience to one of interpreting personal experience, and from expression to self-expression, we have lost our focus on story as a means of connection with others.

So let’s start with this: writing is to storytelling what talking is to conversation. Writing is a monologue. Storytelling is a dialogue. You can talk at someone without ever being in a conversation with them. Unfortunately, more and more writers simply write at readers.

Great writers are great storytellers, and they know they’re in a kind of conversation with readers.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s the writing paradigm that we’ve all bought into which creates a natural barrier between writers and readers. Right now the process of story production such as it is begins with an idea, continues with extrapolating that idea to the writer’s satisfaction, and ends with a completed manuscript.

After that, if the writer wants to reach an audience it becomes the publisher’s responsibility, along with all the various supporting strategies now available digitally.

As writers we’ve come to rely on the sense of security that the work of establishing readership is out of our hands and placed into a delicately balanced system of marketing and PR and social  networking and cash. It’s branding, it’s positioning, it’s funding. If the book fails it’s because some part of that system – or all of it – has failed. Even when we’re busy with promotion ourselves as writers, the outcome still depends on the success or failure of promotion.

That’s how we’re being brainwashed anyway.

The final fall-back for blame is that the writer wasn’t much good to begin with – or was just too beautiful for this world. Only one of those is ever true – and about 99% of the time.

But the failure of the formula is not the root of our failure to reach readers. The failure is that how the reader fits in is wrong. The whole writing paradigm is wrong, wrong, WRONG.

WRONG.

Now, you’re probably thinking – but isn’t that the way it’s supposed to go? Where’s the pitfall?

Think about it like this:

The job of reaching the reader shouldn’t start with the publisher. It shouldn’t even start with the writer. It should start in the writing.

Now, when I’m talking about the reader, I don’t mean the vague reader-as-theoretical-consumer that writers assume – the imagined persona that comes with the question we’ve all been told by well-meaning advice-givers to ask ourselves at some point – “who is my reader?” – which represents the kind of demographic that would pick up a book like ours.

Some of us imagine a particular friend or relative as a stand-in for this mythical consumer, or we latch onto a more successful author’s fanbase to claim as our intended fans.

Which really only means “I want her buyers or I want his buyers” without ever understanding the most powerful reasons the writer has earned those readers to begin with.

But identifying who your ultimate fan might be is a terrible misunderstanding of the role the reader plays in story creation. We imagine some ghostly set of characteristics hovering in the backdrop that silently love – and buy – our kind of writing.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The reader is not outside the text, watching, assessing, guiding.

For the writer, the reader is not a demographic. Not a consumer. Not even a potential fan. That’s who the reader is after the fact, once the story reaches the marketplace.

Before that point, for the writer, the reader is in the fact, in the story as it’s being created. The reader is as absorbed into the text as the writer is.

But if you as a writer don’t understand what this means, there’s no way you can engage the reader through your creation. And if you don’t engage the reader, no amount of writing or marketing or money or social networking will ever create an audience for you.

A consumer is just someone who buys a product. A fan is a happy consumer.

The reader is the other half of the story-mind. The reader is the other participant in a narrative conversation. If the story has failed, it’s because the writer failed primarily as a storyteller and secondarily as a writer.

Being in that dialogue and getting into the reader’s head is not the job of the publisher, or the social network, or bloggers and book-selling entities. Getting the book into the reader’s hand is the publisher’s job, the job of marketing and promotion.

Getting into the reader’s head is the writer’s job. And writers don’t have a clue how it happens.

It isn’t magic or some mysterious creative force, or luck, that you either have or don’t have. That’s what talent and genius bring to a narrative.

And this is not to say in any way that writers should produce what they think an audience wants to read. It has nothing whatsoever to do with that at all. It’s about understanding how the reader’s mind interacts with story.

The most important factor in reaching the reader is storytelling, and understanding storytelling requires that the writer understand what creates a story beyond just the act of writing.

But right now, storytelling illiteracy is rampant among writers. Storytelling illiteracy has been fostered by the writing paradigm and supported wholeheartedly by the publishing model as an acceptable minimum.

Reaching the consumer is not what creates success. It’s reaching the reader first that makes success even a remote possibility. Yet something goes wrong somewhere between the writer and the writing. All you can do is cross your fingers and hope that the string of plotting details you’ve laid out works and that the outside forces will do your job in addition to their own to get readers interested.

That’s an awful lot of your life and creativity to leave to luck or someone else’s whims.

But in the current writing paradigm, that’s what writers are  doing. We’ve all been absorbed into this creed and have even taken the blame for how it consistently fails us.

We’re awful storytellers, and the writing paradigm makes it impossible for us to know it. It privileges writing over storytelling, so writers can spend years in the writing community at every level – from informal writer’s groups all the way up to graduate programs – without ever being taught what creates storytelling, and without ever knowing how badly we’re messing it up.

The insurmountable problems writers are consistently creating in their narratives are developing out of a writing paradigm that sets writers – and publishing – up for failure. In fact, in the writing paradigm, success is the anomaly rather than the rule. There is no other choice.

While we labour away according to a writing paradigm, stories that last grow out of a storytelling paradigm. We no longer have the knowledge or the ability – or justification if you listen to some people – to privilege storytelling over writing. In fact, in some circles incoherence and a complete lack of storytelling are honoured as evidence of literary superiority, but if you look at some of the masterpieces of experimental narrative, there is nothing incoherent about them. They adhere to the principles of storytelling as much as any straight linear work. But the writers then break narrative into bits and pieces so the reader must approach it archaeologically or forensically and representationally and linguistically as a rare thing to be discovered and mentally reassembled. Experimental writers are failing not because they’re too smart for the reader but because they actually believe that the narrative is created out of incoherence. Not so.

We need a new paradigm, and it has to be a storytelling paradigm that gives writers a holistic view of narrative that embraces reader engagement. The storytelling paradigm is the one that accepts that the story doesn’t end with a finished manuscript but rather a finished story.

What a massive difference that makes in the outcome. When the writer has taken control over storytelling, it means that the reader has been engaged before the query even reaches the publisher’s desk. If a story is well-written and well-told, then even with a minimum of marketing effort there’s at least a chance that the groundswell will come from readers pushing for the book instead of the publisher.

Isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want to create that hunger in readers?

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The Story Analyst: With A Premise Like That, Who Would Want To Read This Book?

sclogo (3)See if you know who wrote this.

Here’s the premise. A poor, oddball social outcast salvages a steam engine to win a girl who offers herself as a marriage prize in exchange.

And now the summary. Sit tight, it totally gets better. Totally. A poor, oddball outcast is walking to church one day behind the pretty orphaned niece of a shipping entrepreneur, and after she writes his name in the snow along the roadside he falls obsessively in love with her – which is always the best kind of love.

... erm, hopefully with ... a finger?

I’m sure she used her finger but still, if that’s not love what is?

Her uncle’s ship, invaluable because it’s the only steam-powered vessel anywhere and is the source of his wealth, runs into a reef, but with the treacherous conditions and impossibility of the task, nobody wants to lift a finger to go get it for the old coot. The girl, who sure has a high opinion of herself, promises to marry anyone who can salvage the engine. Obviously selling yourself for an engine beats, say, getting a job to help out a bit. Imagine the shot to her ego when the only taker is the village weirdo.

I choo-choo-choose you!

So the young man sets out for the reef determined to win his prize of an insincere but sweetly naive tease.

The bulk of the novel is about his resolute pig-headed struggle against the sea, starvation and thirst, and the work of trying to jerry-rig a way to remove the engine without destroying it (all without the proper tools) as the ship slowly breaks apart.

All for this totally worthy woman.

[spoiler alert: end of the novel discussed ahead]

After a superhuman psychotic amount of effort he eventually saves the engine and, half dead, sails back to the village to claim his wife and reward. Now, by this time he has been written off for dead and his beloved has already forgotten about him and fallen in love with someone she just met a moment ago. Upon our hero’s return he overhears the girl accept a marriage proposal from the much better looking, less weirdo-ish Anglican priest from the “in-crowd” – a bit like the head cheerleader throwing over the kindhearted but pimply D&D freak for the football captain. Rather than force her into marriage our friend instead arranges their wedding and helps them board a ship to whisk them away to a happy life together. Then he climbs up into the rocks along the seashore to an indentation at the crest that forms a rock-chair. As he watches their ship disappear into the horizon, the tide rises and he allows himself to drown. The end.

Oh, and plus there’s a haunted house.

Because what literary masterpiece ISN’T made instantly better with a haunted house?

And a monster octopus.

Ditto.

And smugglers.

And it’s a statement about the Industrial Revolution.

Did I mention the haunted house?

Um … what? Who would read that? More to the point, who would write it? It sounds like some terrible manuscript Elaine Benes would be asked to edit for a job in publishing.

He was a simple country boy. You might say a cockeyed optimist, who got himself mixed up in the high stakes game of steam engines and international shipping. … Well it’s a story about love, deception, greed, lust and…unbridled enthusiasm. … aw, crap, I don’t even know anymore

So who wrote it?

Victor Hugo, that’s who. Yes, that guy, the Les Miz guy. It’s Toilers of the Sea, and it’s one of the most taut, harrowing stories you’ll ever read. You will swear at that idiot Gilliat, you will pound your fists against air because of him, you’ll white-knuckle it through gale-force winds and feel rigging lash and snap through the air around you. You will loathe and admire him and curse him and feel for him and cheer for him –

Hey little buddy.

– then on the power of pure adrenaline (because you will, I promise you, be completely, physically wasted) you will stand straight up from wherever you were when he dies in that damned rock-chair and you will make weird chuffing noises like “bu – he – I – he – b – ” then you will lay or sit right back down, hold the book to your chest, stare out into the literary void and say, “Merci, M. Hugo – or should I say mercy.”

When you’re able to stand again on your own, the first thing you’ll have to do is hobble over to see your doctor, who’ll ask, “What brings you here today (you hypochondriac)?”

You’ll say: “I need to see a physiotherapist.”

“Oh?” You’ll get that look, you know, the down-the-nose look that says what now, moron? “Hurt yourself?”

You’ll squinch your shoulders a bit, avoid eye contact. “Uh, yup. Hurt myself.”

“What did you do?”

“I uh – ” (quick, think, do you say you hurt yourself READING?)

“- I pulled something – “ (think, think -)

But the words will just disgorge into the room: “- See, there was this IDIOT, and he was trying to salvage this steam engine off Guernsey and it was so cold and I – sorry, he – didn’t have the proper clothes and there was this storm, and the ship started breaking up on the rocks and there wasn’t enough food or water and I – he – he had to get this engine off the wreck and it was days and weeks and – I don’t know, I lost track of time, it was like war, it was this war with the elements and this octopus monster and my own – his own – stupidity and all I wanted was to get that damned engine off that damned ship – and now my back and muscles are killing me -”

“You did say therapist, right?”

Ahh. That’s what happens when you take a weird, unworkable premise and give it to a master, and he proceeds to PHYSICALLY. HURT. YOU. WITH. IT.

Now, why is it that we all probably have way better premises stashed away somewhere along our writing experience, and all we manage to do is write an awful story?

Well, for one, Victor Marie Hugo knew how to tell a story. We don’t.

What’s interesting is that telling a great story can still go hand-in-hand with some tremendous flaws. We can all agree that ole Victor Marie had a tendency toward the melodramatic. But it’s so delicious! He also frequently just droned on and on and on about background facts in punishing detail but man, it’s so worth powering through to get to the good bits because usually that, together with the big picture and including the droning parts, is so much more important than any flaws.

There is nothing particularly likable about the premise of Toilers of the Sea. The protagonist is the kind of poodley oddball you’d feel burning holes in the back of your head without having to even turn around to see him there. The kind of guy who would make hang-up calls. Lots of them. Every day. Watch you from a parked car down the street. The girl’s a bit of a jerk whom you suspect will never really care for him no matter how good he is because of his position. Almost the whole story is this grueling struggle for some dumb engine. There’s just so much to turn a reader off. It’s not sexy. It’s just sad and exhausting.

And 1000% worth reading. It’s Hugo’s unsung masterpiece, unfairly eclipsed by you-know-what.

So what’s our old pal Vic doing to make it work?

He knows how to break your heart with all the qualities you don’t want to like about it. Gilliat’s life is bleak, and his obsessive love for Deruchette, as wrong-headed as it is, gives him a little hope for something deeply human: to belong – not to the girl herself but to what she represents, and that’s life inside the circle of human connection. Belonging. To be a part of the whole instead of apart from it.

His struggle for the engine becomes a stand-in for the epic human struggle to change the course of a life that otherwise has very little going for it. Little by little the reader goes from wondering why Gilliat would even bother, why he doesn’t give up in the face of so much catastrophe, to understanding that he’s not fighting for an engine at all or for Deruchette’s love, but rather for simple hope and acceptance. We don’t believe in Deruchette’s love or sincerity, but he does. He has to. Nobody can live as an outcast without suffering, and even the risk of death is not too great if it will mean an end to the suffering of exclusion. So when Deruchette goes, Gilliat’s hope goes too. Despite expending all he had, he still loses. There’s nothing left in him to fight again for even a shred more of hope and he can’t live on as an excerpt – so he can’t live on at all.

When Hugo is done with us, we understand how epic the human spirit truly is to create change – for the heart, for the soul, for the body, the family, or the conditions we can no longer endure as they are. There is a bit of Gilliat in all of us. Hugo shows us how much the human spirit can expend of itself and endure for hope and, when Gilliat sits in that rock-chair to slowly die, how easily it can be broken when hope is gone.

In fact, it works because Hugo chooses such an odd premise instead of just vomiting up one more iteration of the same ideas everyone else is kicking around, and because he knows that the story is a stand-in for something much, much more valuable.

Don’t be afraid to offer the reader an unusual premise for an unusual story. But kick it up by making it about way more than what it appears to be at first glance.

It’s that second glance that changes everything.

Follow this blog for updates about a game-changing story development tool that can help turn writers into storytellers. Whether you’re using complicated software or your own methods to help you write, this is the tool you’ll need first to understand how to create an engaging story instead of just writing.

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