Tag Archives: storytelling

Writing Quote: John Irving

SC Blog - Irving - Know the StoryKnow the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?
-John Irving

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

Writing Quote: Dean R. Koontz

SC Blog - Koontz - Literary Fiction Quote“Authors of so-called ‘literary’ fiction insist that action, like plot, is vulgar and unworthy of a true artist. Don’t pay any attention to misguided advice of that sort. If you do, you will very likely starve trying to live on your writing income. Besides, the only writers who survive the ages are those who understand the need for action in a novel.”
—Dean R. Koontz, August 1981

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Writing Quote: Anton Chekhov

SC Blog - Chekhov - moon quote“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

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The “Because” of Storytelling

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Years ago a client came to me with a massive unpublished coming-of-age manuscript set in an era rife with racial tensions. She had a magical way with description. During a workshop a brief excerpt had even been given tons of praise and attention by an award-winning internationally renowned author, who saw great potential in the writing and in the bones of the story. This author even gave the writer her agent’s name and contact info, with express consent to name drop to the agent.

Take a moment to let that kind of opportunity sink in.

Yes sir!

Yes sir!

It’s almost hard not to picture said author giving said writer a little chuck under the chin and a knowing wink.

So the writer came to me to help her get the story into a publishable state. About 600 pages later the character had passed through all the epic horror and beauty you’d expect from that era and place, including a brutal act of violence experienced by the protagonist.

It was never published. All the lush description in the world could not save this manuscript or this writer. The world-class author could not have known how problematic this manuscript was based on the first few pages – which can be the best pages in a m/s, or the worst. Upon completing my analysis I informed the writer that unless she followed my advice it would never be published. She didn’t – or couldn’t – do it, and what might have been an important story likely became bird-cage liner.

So, what went wrong?

There’s some advice that’s been around forever about the narrative “and” versus “and then”. This happens, and this happens. Or this happens, and then that happens. One is supposed to be better than the other, but let’s break that down and see what kind of value it really has in storytelling.

Beginning writers often take a character and drop them into a successive string of events, with the idea that as long as the the protagonist’s the center of action and an end is reached they’ve succeeded. This is the simple addition of narrative. Event + Event. Scene + Scene. This happens, and this happens, and this happens, the end.

Now, these stories might be really well written but it’s not storytelling, and often this approach results in a sprawling, disjointed, pointless, tedious product. Yes, in the case of this manuscript the protagonist went from childhood to womanhood and even found inner peace, but only because the writer said so. The story proved nothing of the kind. The protagonist moved through a succession of scenes typified by the era – in fact, one might argue, the equivalent of a tour-book cliche of it. The end.

Let me repeat that. The protagonist moved through a succession of scenes.

The protagonist did not experience the events. She didn’t even witness them or offer reportage. She merely passed through them like an inert bubble. In them, but not of them. The placement of the protagonist into guidebook attractions only compromised any hope for authenticity, as though the writer had wanted to touch upon all the touristy things that absolutely must be experienced in this locale in order for it to be recognized by readers. In truth, she did not trust that she could tell a story about place without them. This lack of any real agency and authority would give any story all the earnestness of a Paris Hilton driving through Jim Crow South in the back of a Hummer with a Condé Nast Traveller, then trying to write To Kill A Mockingbird.



The damage this additive approach – scene+scene – causes to a story is endless (see sprawling, pointless, tedious, disjointed above), but the chief failure in this case was that the writer seemed unable to give the protagonist any kind of emotional or psychological functionality. Part of that was a consistent urge to tell rather than show.

Say a serial killer broke into your kitchen and slaughtered your beloved Ma. I just made that up to drive home a point. There you are, standing at the door looking in on this scene, a plate of hamburger and fries slathered in ketchup in your hand, and you think OMG, I’m s-o-o-o terrified. Police arrive, you tell them you were s-o-o-o terrified, then you leave the scene and … never think about it again? And if you passed in and out of that kitchen regularly for the next few years, would you just go right ahead and squeeze that blob of ketchup out, lick a dab off your thumb, and never even get a twitch?

I was so terrified. Meaningless. What does terror feel like? How can you make the reader experience terror by proxy? In our manuscript example, the worst was when the protagonist as a young woman was gang-raped, then went on for the rest of the story exactly the same way she had since page one.

Terror has an aftermath too, so this client put her character through some unspeakable events whose effects had exactly zero impact on anything once that scene was over.

No emotional/psychological functionality. Not good. Not in fiction, not in life. Not in a writer.

Now, if you’re writing about sociopaths or particular psychological states where the protagonist regresses or detaches, that’s one thing. The writer did not appear to know how to offer the reader anything but descriptions of things and places, or understand how to write growth or development into a character, which is hard to miss in a coming-of-age story.

If you look at the most hardcore non-linear literary works they are never merely strings of events out of order. Even epistolary and picaresque novels give the appearance of this simple narrative addition, but are far more complex and carefully orchestrated.

Writers then tend to go from the additive approach to writing into the realm of narrative algebra. This happens, and then that happens takes the scene+scene idea up a notch, suggesting a movement that simple narrative addition lacks. Here order matters. To even get this far our promising writer needed to make each scene serve a purpose to the story that went beyond describing what everything looked like, or as mere breadcrumbs between beginning and end.

In mathematics, addition is a basic operative function. Order doesn’t matter. In storytelling, this would be the equivalent of one scene having no more or less value than any other. You can keep adding scenes but it will not give the outcome any more weight. You can have 2+1+1 or you can have 1 + 1+ 2. Writers who are just stringing scenes together get the same outcome, with nothing else making any difference. No particular scene changes the character much, or the plot points.

Algebra (al-jebr: the reunion of broken parts) involves mathematical systems of representation (letters for unknown quantities). After approaching the writing process as additive, writers might begin to put some weight on the events and scenes to end up with something more like this:

(Scene a + Event b) x X = novel

This can work just fine for very formulaic stories or genres. The whodunnit, the bodice-ripper. But there’s still something missing. It’s the connectedness and reflexivity between the events. Breadcrumbs lead somewhere, but they are only discrete placeholders.  Picking up a narrative thread and following it to wherever it leads is better but almost as limiting. You still don’ t know where you are in the grand scheme of things. You’re just going from here to there.

Story is more: because this happened, that happens. Now we’re getting into a more complex kind of narrative calculus:

(Event 1 + Scene 1 ) +  Purpose Y  x  ∑  (Δ emotional state/Δ psychological state ) +  time X + Event 2 = Scene 2

Now, all that’s just a bunch of fancy looking nonsense to demonstrate the complexity of storytelling, but the truth is that everything beautiful in mathematics is what makes storytelling rich. Calculus is the mathematics of change. Calculus deals with differentiation, integration, function, and symbolic reasoning. Wow, that’s beautiful for writers. The pros know it deep in their solar plexus.

One of my suggestions to the client was to take the rape out and rewrite it as a children’s story. Certainly the makings of an excellent children’s story were there. In fact, it was too naively written to be anything else. If she could not develop the character maturely, or could not see the story through the filter of cynicism needed to create the kind of emotional and psychological ugliness the events demanded, children’s writing was the only realistic option.

My guess is that she promptly made a beeline for the agent’s open door, cashed in the secret handshake given by the famous author, then …

Mary Poppins Inappropriate Story

Um – maybe urban violence isn’t the right fit for this story …?

Nothing. Good description can’t save bad storytelling.

If a writer’s lucky there’ll be some generous hints from an agent or a publisher about how to fix what’s broken. Most just get rejected, no specified reason. What happens when a manuscript is fixable but the writer can’t or won’t do what the story requires? Back then I’m sure the client continued trying to find a publisher or agent, obviously without success. Today she might go straight to self-publishing, then wonder why only close family and friends and a handful of strangers interested in the subject have bought a copy. The despair of rejection or the inability to understand storytelling will make most writers give up. I’m sure she did.

Any time I’ve worked with beginners the mistakes are the same. They’re stuck at the narrative addition stage. Or they go in the opposite direction and the characters’ emotional and psychological states are gut-spattered all over the pages until none of it has any value. There isn’t enough internal value carried through the story. Dropped threads. Meagre or nonexistent internal lives. Events and experiences that pop up with little  or no continuity or connection to each other or to the characters’ internal lives. There’s no sense of because.

This happens because that happened, and because that happened, there is change.

If you’re not getting anywhere with your stories, or if you’ve self-published and have sold poorly, ask yourself whether your writing is too additive, or too algebraic. Are your characters’ emotional and psychological states carried over across the entire story, expanded and contracted by joy and trauma in the same way they would if real people had those same experiences? Does the calculus of you narrative account for change?

Have you looked for and developed the “because” in storytelling?


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

No Great Mischief – Loss and Pain

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThis is a student video presentation about the immigrant experience, and the themes of loss and love in the late Alistair MacLeod’s stirring – and only – novel, No Great Mischief. Quotes from my essay Staring Down My Ghosts In Northern Ontario, published in the Globe & Mail a while back, were included as part of the presentation. Interesting synchronicity that the students couldn’t have known: MacLeod not only taught me, but was the first person to offer encouragement about doing graduate work, an astounding idea considering I had a business degree and one mediocre English course credit under my belt.  About a decade later he sat in on my thesis defense, which I didn’t realize was unheard-of until it was over and my defense committee commented that they’d never seen him do that before.  It’s humbling that my name even came within glancing distance of his when it comes to writing, even in a student presentation, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. Dr. MacLeod was one of the loveliest men you’d ever meet with a fantastic sense of humor that got me through Jane Austin without going postal (sorry Austinites, but I’m more of a Frankenstein kind of gal). Thanks, students, whoever you are.

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June 12, 2014 · 1:12 pm

Do You Want To Be Published or Do You Want To Be Read?

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThe average employee will put around 2,000 (+/-) hours per year into a job. That’s eight hours a day, five days a week, week in, week out, excluding holidays, paid overtime, and the odd Monday morning I’ll-kill-myself-if-I-have-to-go-in-there time.

If there’s any truth to the the 10,000-hour rule for mastering a skill set, it would take approximately five years to accomplish anything meaningful on the job. Of course, give or take, considering differentials like intelligence, talent, ambition etc.

Let’s just say the average “writer” has one of these jobs that causes bills to be paid and food to be eaten and dumpster-diving to be forestalled. Let’s just say. Now, the 2,000 hours does not include off-site time spent finishing reports, ulcerating quietly on the bathroom floor, crying, or doing research.

image courtesy of windows8core.com

Important research.

Now, there are maybe another good 50 hours left in the week .  That’s pretty awesome, translating to potentially 3,000 more hours during the year to excel at something more important to you, like writing.

Oh, but oops – forgot about preparing meals, eating, and cleaning up after meals. Shopping. Housework. Yard work. Grooming. Childcare. Trying to figure out why the printer won’t print.

Friends. Social time. Sick time. Down time.

photo courtesy of simple.wikipedia.org

Does this count as socializing AND rest?

Even if writers were left with half that time free (a generous estimate) to concentrate on writing, it would take a minimum of nearly seven years of dedicated effort to produce writing that resembled anything like mastery. Notice I said writing and not a manuscript. That’s because telling good stories is a whole nuther level of mastery and requires far more than a skillful way of stringing words together. Of course, that seven years includes everything from pre-writing to final editing, whether you’ve told a good story or not. Bear in mind that even after the Beatles began their insane rocket-ship ride to celebrity it took years to produce their truly great material.

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Then there’s the publishing process. It can take years of rejection and tinkering and full-out rewrites before a junior editor sifting through a slush pile notices you – if it’s a particularly good query. But even the query process has its own learning curve. If a query is noticed it might be 3-9 months before they let you know, and if a full manuscript is requested it can take up to a year or more before it’s read. If they like what they see, rewrites may be suggested. Make that “suggested”, ie: do it or get lost. Depending on the involvement, tack on another year, then another waiting for an analysis of the rewrites. Then there’s the hurdle of the editorial board approvals at every stage.

If it’s accepted, throw on another 1-3 years before a book reaches a shelf.

If it’s rejected, back  to square one.

This is why so many turn to self-publishing as an express route to authorship.

So, what is all this getting to? Writing is not like making popsicle-stick birdhouses. Treat it like a hobby, and you will be lucky if you can get your Gammy to take a copy.

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Oh, uh – hey, yeah that’s – and you did this yourself? Well, don’t you worry, Gammy knows EXACTLY where this belongs.

Maybe you feel the years slipping between your fingers, and as becoming a published author dims on the far horizon somehow it becomes more urgent than ever. Before I’m 30, you say. Then: before I’m 40, 50, once I’ve retired.

Before I die.

But no, you say. No way am I waiting years, decades to get this done. That brass ring is right there, if you could only reach –

Yes, do it. Do. It. Go ahead, self-publish, get your work out there and you’ll be the next Wool, and then it’ll be you making them bloody well wait for that contract.

Stop. Please. Stop and think for a moment about what it means to be an author versus a writer.

Be a writer first. Being a writer is all about you. Write because you love it and you have a story to tell, because it helps you work through your issues, because it relieves the stresses of life and lets you express yourself. But being a writer doesn’t mean being  readable  or publishable.

Becoming an author is no longer about you, because there’s another mind involved and that’s the reader. Becoming an author means you have a story that needs to be communicated to readers, because no matter what your issues are or how many stessors there are in life, you are first and foremost dedicated to perfecting your craft and raising your work to the realm of art no matter what the consequences are.

Because being publishable starts with being readable – and that includes everything from children’s fiction to complex works that require an annotated concordance just to read.

Readability is good storytelling. Good storytelling attracts readers. Publishers are looking for great storytelling because they want to attract readers. Because, ultimately, readers mean sales. Not always, but mostly they know a good story when they come across it. And remember that what gets published is not always that good because the bulk of what comes in for review is just so gut-wrenchingly, pukingly awful. Sometimes what gets published is just the best of what came in, and that can be very little above mediocre. Rejection is not a way of hurting writers, but a way of saying you’re not there yet. Rejection is Writing 101 at the university of work harder, write better.

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Not. There. Yet …

So why are you going to self-publish? To attract readers? Oh my dear, self-publish because you have readers, because you have the stats to prove you can get more readers besides your besties and your family (hey, Gammy!). Readers don’t come because you’ve put your work out there. They don’t even come because you’ve set off a monster marketing and PR campaign. They come because the story is worth reading. To them, not to you. That’s why Wool happened.

Is it panic, then, because you want your name in print before you die? And what will that get you in the end? Humiliating failure with no up-side except maybe some vicious trolling and online snark to rip a hole in your soul (as opposed to, if you’re lucky, some very generous commentary from an editor in the process of rejecting you).

Because what’s the point in being published if nobody reads your work? Notice, though, that I’m not talking about sales. I’m talking about readers. Readers are not necessarily sales, but readers are definitely necessary – and absolutely pave the way – for sales.

Is wanting to be a published author such a blind ambition that you’ve lost sight of what it takes to have readers?

The time is necessary, fellow writers. Time is your investment, and not just the hours per day you dedicate at the keyboard, but the years of doubt and questioning and self-reflection required to move a story from its sacred position in your mind to a sacred position in the reader’s mind. Invest in this time no matter how much is required of you, and do it gladly because it is the birth canal that will bring story from within you  into the world. It’s messy and it’s ugly and many can’t go through with it. But like a baby’s gestation from zygote to beautiful autonomous infant ready to take on the world, the writer requires a gestation in order to become an author. Writing requires a gestation to become storytelling.

Ten thousand hours. Five years. Seven years. Ten.

So how about it: do you want to be published?

Or do you want to be read?

If you’re tired of trying to figure out how to tell a great story, stay tuned to this blog for news about a revolutionary new structuring tool that will help you not only get the bones of your story right, but also help you keep track of changes so your story makes sense from beginning to end no matter how many drafts. Be sure to subscribe to this blog to be kept in the loop so you can be among the first to try it out. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to help get your story working now.

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How Storytelling and Structure Relate

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookBad structure/bad storytelling

So this guy doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. His buddy gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The two hunters had been out in the woods when the guy had collapsed. The buddy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. The operator says “Calm down. I can help.” The guy on the phone says “OK, now what?” The operator says “First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a gun shot is heard.

Good structure/good storytelling

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. The guy doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a gun shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?” (‘Spike ‘wrote world’s best joke’– courtesy of BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/5064020.stm )

That, my friends, is how important structure is.

If you’re tired of trying to figure out how to tell a great story, stay tuned to this blog for news about a revolutionary new story development tool that will help you not only get the bones of your story right, but also help you keep track of changes so your story makes sense from beginning to end no matter how many drafts. Be sure to subscribe to this blog to be kept in the loop so you can be among the first to try it out. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to help get your story working now.

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5 More Important Questions That Will Help You Find The Story You Were Born To Write

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookYou didn’t think there were only five, did you? Naw …

If the pen is the extension of the body, writing is the extension of the self. Writing is creative mimesis; it’s semblance and resemblance. Between the writer and the reader lies an experience of mutual recognition or awareness or awakening originating from two discrete minds. Somewhere out there are readers with minds already honed and ready for that moment. It’s up to the writer to find those pathways between. So let’s cut to the chase:

1. What is it about home that creates place?

Notice I didn’t say what is it about place that creates home? Think about that for a bit. In composition rhetoric theory (the study of writing non-fiction with power and authority), the place that formed you bears a tremendous amount of weight when it comes to writing authentically. It is a well from which the writer draws insight, meaning, and both shared social familiarity and recognition.

For fiction writers this does not necessarily (but can) mean that you must write about your home town, subdivision, block, or building environment. What it means, and what this question suggests, is that if you can pare out the pulsing heart of the culture that made you you, it will provide  the truest raw materials of group dynamics you will ever have available, and these are the same raw materials and group dynamics familiar to your readers about their culture.  The rest is just pretty ribbons and bows that represent different units of humanity. The numbers on this are pretty solid if you’re aiming at making a big or lasting impact. Just look at the works we still read from every genre to the most complex literary masterpieces.

In Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, the author takes readers through a physical landscape of India’s oppressive sights and smells and tastes that always seem balanced by equivalent beauty. This is Mistry’s home, the culture that made him, and through it he gives readers an orienting place, almost like the needle of a compass: this is where something horrifying and alien can resonate with such truth that it ultimately becomes a transcendent reflection of all our places – physical, geographic, cultural, familial, and deeply personal.

Let’s call it homing. How do the details of the place you know best create orientation, so that readers can find their own direction?These home factors make place believable. It tells the reader that you understand how landscape and history and social development can make not only an identifiable peoples, but people – the enmeshed group and the individuals comprising it.

If you understand your home, you can give readers their home. If you understand what gives home a sense of place then no matter where your stories are set, they will bristle with enough foreign/familiar energy to draw readers who 1) enter attracted to a context they know only to find out they don’t, and 2) enter attracted to a context they don’t know only to find out it’s more familiar than they imagined. Horror, SFF, thrillers, romance, literary – all the best possible because the writer started with the most fundamental features of a home that birthed identity, then formed character, then opened a pathway to a place for readers to say yes, this is It. This is home.

2. What are your philosophies?

Even Harlequin romance writers have a philosophy: love conquers all, love is the essence of life, something along those lines. The deeper and more individual your philosophy, the more intense the connection with the reader can become.

So what do you believe about life? Write it down. Make a list. If your storytelling makes no philosophical sense, the discord and pretense will bulge through like a hernia. If you don’t know your own philosophies, you might find it hard to locate your story’s center or through-line. In fact, you might not even be able to cogently define your theme.

Make no mistake, though: you do not have to write about philosophy here. That’s not what this is about. It’s about permeating your writing with something that will feel true to the reader because it’s true to you, whether it’s a straight-up detective story or the next Finnegan’s Wake. If you’re trying to write about a cynical detective in a noir-ish novel, and it’s not working, maybe it’s because you are at heart a glass-half-full kind of person.

See how that is?

Your emotional core is a built-in component of your psycho-emotional make-up, and something that’s extremely hard to change. Philosophies, however, are completely of the mind and can be changed with new information.

Writing is an extension of youThis is how profoundly your philosophies can influence your writing. Writing begins, to as much an extent as it is possible, with the Delphic know thyself. Once you have half a clue, then you can understand how you see the world, and how much a filter your ideas about life provide for your experiences. And your writing.

3. What has life taught you?

Ah, so close, yet so far from a philosophical position or an emotional core. This can be the catalyst for all those things, the reinforcement, the proof. Has life taught you that people can’t be trusted? That’s not a philosophy, it’s not an emotion – but it is an experiential truth.

Again, think about what you’re trying to write. The heart of your story must ring true because it must be true to you on some level. When you know it, you can control it in your writing.

Now, life might have taught you some things, but it’s inside the narrative where you put it to the test. Set it on fire. Cajole it. Pound it flat. Then see how true it is for your fictional creation. Narrative is not where you punch your reader in the brain with certainties. It’s where you find out how real they are.

4. Do you have the courage to question yourself?

Okay, so now you understand what makes you tick and maybe what’s making your writing not tick. You have figured out the emotional, philosophical, and experiential prism through which you interpret the world.

Now let’s talk about refraction, where the story enters the prism and breaks apart.

Instead of thinking about your own philosophies, emotions, and experiences as a way to decide between right and wrong, pick apart what happens when your ideas about human experience and life become shattered by some unexpected reality. Be wrong! Kick your perspective in the teeth, then go straight for the ‘nads. Then when your belief system is curled in pain, just haul back your writerly steel-toed boot and send its internal organs flying out through its gaping maw.

Gross? Sure. But your readers will thank you.

Proof? Let’s go with some of the most popular dramas on tv recently. The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, True Detective. Why do we keep coming back? Is it because we see ourselves reflected in the characters or situations? Is it because we see our ideas about life reflected – then torn to pieces – through the characters and situations?

Oh yeah, baby, you aren’t feeding at that trough because the writers are confirming everything you believe to be true. Oh no. You go there because every minute of every episode is a public autopsy of the human psyche. Your human psyche.

Write the kind of story that leaves readers to think about their own feelings, thoughts and positions. But that only comes when you know what you think about the world yourself. Only then can you pull it apart. Expose the most authentic fictional world you can, and let the reader explore its brilliance and darkness and refracted pieces on their own.

So if you want an audience that stands around a cooler talking about your story or your book or your script, then you’d better snap those surgical gloves on and grease up the rib-spreader, because you’re going elbow deep into your own guts. If you can’t get past the black/white binaries then perhaps writing is not for you, because it isn’t the narrative assertions of life’s black and white that make characters and storytelling interesting, it’s when those certainties break apart into all their refracted components. A character whose creator isn’t bullying and tormenting and knocking them face down into the muck of life makes a story nobody will care about.

5. Who is doing the talking?

In a previous post I wrote about storybombing, which is like photobombing except instead of some goofball poking his/her face into your wedding photo, it’s the author poking him/herself into a story. This is related, except it’s about differentiating voices and narrators and characters so that they don’t all sound like you.

If you don’t understand your own emotional and philosophical and experiential cores, you will have difficulty creating characters that spring from the page with a force and vitality that makes an audience’s blood start chugging through their veins.

Always ask yourself whether it’s your character’s or narrator’s words and ideas or your own. Can you even tell the difference? If not, ask yourself why.

If you write from one voice – yours – you run the risk of never getting more than one semi-autobiographical narration out of your career, or narratives that sound the same no matter what or who the story is about.

Whose idea is surfacing during thoughtful moments? Whose feelings, politics, morals, theology?

Whose voice is speaking?

Have you created a unique enough set of characters so that none could be mistaken for you (the authoring part of yourself, not the elements of your personality that you might give to your characters)? Or for each other?

No matter what it takes, if it’s a complex chart or a binder four inches thick, define each and every character. Define yourself. Then provide unique and recognizable quirks, intelligences, moral/value positions that can be aspects of you without being only and always just you. And best of all, make all those features act as subtextual reflections of their character. Jean Valjean is not given an almost preternatural strength for no good reason. It’s what makes him capable of change. It’s his salvation (and that of many others) on so many levels. His physicality is symbolic, and provides more life to his character by supporting his spiritual, emotional, and intellectual strengths.

Great writing is about offering better questions than answers, and giving audiences a place to come home to.

Write that and Sign. Me. Up.

Read the first post in this series: 5 Important Questions That Will Help You Find The Story You Were Born To Write

If you’re tired of trying to figure out how to tell a great story, stay tuned to this blog for news about a revolutionary new structuring tool that will help you not only get the bones of your story right, but also help you keep track of changes so your story makes sense from beginning to end no matter how many drafts. Be sure to subscribe to this blog to be kept in the loop so you can be among the first to try it out. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to help get your story working now.

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

What’s With All The Talk About Structure?

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookIt’s everywhere. The snowflake method. The Wordplay lady. Moi. Probably a few other places.

Why are people talking about structure all of a sudden?

Does a story even need it? Or maybe it’s just for genre writers. Besides, isn’t that like putting shackles on a running thoroughbred? Especially literary writers?

Image courtesy of sprinfieldfiles.com

Structure? No thank you. I’m an artiste. I wing it.

Whoa there, back up. Please don’t mistake structure for some dictatorial pre-fab format. Structure is to story what bones are to flesh. It’s there, whether you consciously create it or not. Writing without structure is like walking without bones. If you’re lucky – and most of us are not – you have a knack for intuiting structure from within the writing process. Like a boss. Bravo.


It’s a bit like raising children: if you don’t teach them values, someone else will.

Image courtesy of totalfilm.com

Like this guy. He will teach em up real good.

If writers don’t consciously deal with structure, the reader will. And while s/he might not be actively aware of what the problem is, the story will simply not sit right. If you troll the comments sections of your local online book emporium, notice how often you read assessments like “a mess”, “went nowhere”, “had no point”, “all over the map” “fell apart” “pointless” or “doesn’t know what it wants to be”.

But, you may argue, that’s just bad plotting. Or there’s probably no theme tying it together.

Oh, pookie. These are not plot issues. They’re not thematic problems. They’re structural.

How do I know?

Theme is, say, a massive glass skyscraper in the heart of Kabul, or a cookie cutter neighborhood. If a building is ugly, it’s a design issue. If it falls down? Structural. If there are cracks in the walls, crumbling? Structure. Warping or listing? Structure. Accretions? Structure. Seepage? Structure.

My house. See? I know what I’m talking about. That’s 360-degree structural issues right there.

The qualities of structural soundness apply whether you’re knee deep in basement sewage (and have miraculously found no Hot Wheels stuffed in the toilet) or wrist-deep in narrative sewage.

Take a look at this:

Theme = what your story is about. A glass skyscraper in Kabul says something (intentionally – we’ll get you on your feet economically, or perceptually – we’ve been colonized). A cookie cutter neighborhood says something. Theme is either directed or interpreted, and not necessarily the same way.

Ugly story = unappealing, distasteful, unfamiliar style, voice, form. And ugly can be beautiful: As I Lay Dying.

Collapsed story (ie: a mess or fell apart) = failed structure

Cracks in the narrative (ie: pointless, makes no sense) = unsound structure

Warping/listing story (ie: all over the map, bad beginning, weak middle, fell apart at the end) = weak or poorly constructed structure

Accretions in the story (ie: stuck, all build-up/no follow-through) = compromised structure

Seepage (ie: doesn’t know what it wants to be) = breached structure

You can be a fantastic writer but a bad storyteller, and you won’t have an audience. You can be a terrible writer but with amazing storytelling skills and end up a millionaire.

Structure is everything. Storytelling stands on its foundation. Genius and talent and great ideas are nothing without the substance of structure.

That’s what the big deal is about structure. That’s what all the talk is about.

Unfortunately, it’s also the hardest part to get right. So someone’s telling you to use fractals to set up your story. Start with generalities and work your way toward specifics. It’s a nice idea but how does that help you with your story, now – right now? How do fractals create the dramatic momentum required to tell a good story?

Someone else out there wants you to write summaries and tack them all together with scene-building. What does that have to do with structure, or momentum, or internal logic?

Three acts? Five? Does it matter?

Did you tell a good story after all those exercises? Can you even tell?

Now what? How do you test out whether your story will be a good one? Shouldn’t there be some way to examine the components to see if it has created a structure strong enough for good storytelling?

Mapping? Storyboarding? They might be good for idea generation but how are blind guide methods going to help writers structure? Keep reading all the self-help type books but it’s like reading about building houses. If you want to actually learn how to build a house you have to build a house. That’s when all the weird words and actions take on meaning. Real meaning.

So build your structure.

Over the next few months readers of this blog will learn about the only structuring tool available anywhere that can truly help: read my post on the Writer’s Studio Series:Structural Flowchart (Classic Arc Narrative). Learn how to structure by structuring your story. This is something different. Right now every other method out there is like trying to make sense of a film by looking at one photo at a time. The Structural Flowchart is your whole story. All at once. Right in front of your eyes so you’ll know instantly when something isn’t working, and how it affects other parts of the structure.

Let that bake your noodle for a while.

If you want to tell better stories, if you want to increase your chances of having readers and getting published and doing well, you will need this tool. Subscribe to my blog (rather than merely “like” the post) for updates about when the Structural Flowchart will be available. I’ll continue teaching readers about what exactly this thing is so that by the time it launches on Kickstarter, my blog subscribers will not only know what it is, they’ll also be among the first in the world to get a hold of it. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition, so please tell anyone you know with an interest in writing to come to this blog, subscribe, and be part of something that will change the way stories are built.


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

Pete And Repeat Were Writing A Novel …

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThe answer is repeat. Always.

In an earlier post about the compositional qualities writing shares with musical scoring, I introduced the idea that writers must think about force and momentum, tempo and pacing, and not only the mix of components and voices, but when to best use them for maximum effect. Well, there’s something else that writers share with composers but don’t seem to understand as well, and that is the way repetition of a motif/riff  or symbol or theme holds everything together.

What makes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 so timeless is not the whole, but how poignantly repetition interacts with the listener to render familiarity and recognition into reciprocal qualities. The repeated motif, in this case, is the part you hum. Sometimes its the only part of any song you can remember. Repetition does so not randomly or trivially, but with a significance that helps the composer’s message connect with the listener’s sensory impressions of the world. Through tone and timbre, key and pitch, Beethoven manipulates repetition to make us feel something impending and tempestuous, the fugue of power and fragility. In that familiar motif all listeners gather together from our remote, private experiences to stand on the same page as the composer, an invitation into the rest of his story, which somehow is (and becomes) our own story. It’s as though he taps into something on a quantum level that goes beyond culture and experience, revealing a moment where we can all recognize our commonality.

But notice: repetition is not static. Every time he plays with key or timbre, or any other element of composition, he is pulling us forward into narrative, letting repetition act as a guide into a symphonic landscape, gently providing cues about what’s going on around us.

Writers can use motival, symbolic, and thematic repetition for very specific pertinent details, and with purpose. Jack Torrance’s continually wiped mouth, Miss Haversham’s decaying wedding gown, Fabritius’ painting of a goldfinch, the gardens in Candide.

However, repetition just for the sake of hammering an image into a reader’s head is counterproductive. It can stand out like a tic or bad habit and can lend an impression of poor writing skills or lack of imagination. Each instance must come alive through changes in the mood, presentation, or placement to draw the reader, with the subtlety of a sixth sense, deeper into the story. The more unique and essential to the particular story (as opposed to storytelling in general ), and the more it keys into human experience by bridging the gap between the universal and the personal, the greater the chance of making an impact on the reader. The best writers make repeated themes, symbols, and motifs seem like such an organic part of the story that the absorbed reader will not consciously pick up on it, yet it is this device by which our  emotional, psychological, and intellectual participation with the story has been most profoundly enriched.

Even if we have no desire to emulate the masters, even if we’re writing the most basic fanfic, the goal of every writer is to connect with the reader, or else what’s the point? The way repetition is used throughout narrative is just one of the many important tools writers have to help them succeed, and there are no better teachers than the best that storytelling has to offer.


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