Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Creating Stories and How I Got Interested in This Crazy Business

by Stephanie Black

Tonight, I’ll be a teaching a class of young women about storytelling and how I create a story. Since I need to come up with something to say, I figure I’ll blog on that topic. Many of the things I’ll be talking about will be things I’ve discussed on the blog before—sorry about that, but if your memory is as bad as mine, you can enjoy them just like they were new! Otherwise you can skim, skip, and send irritable notes to Sariah, Jeff, and Rob asking where they heck were they on Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday and will someone please post something new, because Stephanie is just babbling on, repeating herself.

Anyway, I figure I’ll start by telling the young women about how I became interested in writing. Such as:

*I’ve always loved reading. My mother reports that I loved books from the time I was old enough to turn the pages, and even when I was very young, I would sit looking at books (proof that I did occasionally take a break from my favorite position—hanging on her leg, crying).

*Since I was a young child, I’ve enjoyed creating stories. My favorite game was Barbies, and my sisters and I would spend hours making up Barbie games filled with danger and intrigue. To me, writing is a grown-up way of playing Barbies—creating stories about make-believe people, and identifying with those people—living in their world for the duration of the game/novel. My sisters and I also enjoyed playing pretend games outside, as we ran around fighting evil or having adventures as Charlie’s Angels, or the Bionic Woman, or Electro-Woman and Dynagirl, or Isis (anybody remember those shows?). We also wrote a couple of plays for ourselves and younger siblings (and that kid who lived next door who was supposed to be The Sultan in our play, but got in a snit about something and walked out. Actors!).

*When I was twelve years old, my seventh grade English teacher assigned us to write stories for the PTA Reflections contest. The theme that year was What Makes Me Smile. I didn’t care much about the assignment or feel particularly excited about my story—a thrilling tale about, um, practicing the violin. I seem to recall finishing it at lunchtime on the day it was due. But my teacher liked it, and it ended up winning an award at the state level, which was pretty dang exciting and helped pique my interest in writing. Ironically, the next year, I wrote a story I liked better and it didn’t do nearly as well. The writing business is like that sometimes.

*When I was a senior in high school, I took a creative writing class, for which I wrote very boring stories. I could execute the mechanics of writing with sufficient skill—grammar, spelling, punctuation, vocabulary. What I hadn’t figured out is that in a good story, a character needs to want something and something needs to stand in his/her way. The heart of fiction is . . . (and I’ll make the young women guess this word tonight—hey, maybe I could do hangman!) . . . CONFLICT. In your own life, you want things to be as smooth as possible. In a story, you want exactly the opposite for your characters. If no one or nothing opposes the protagonist, you’ve got a really boring story. On the last story I wrote for that creative writing class, I finally came up with an interesting idea—the characters were actually facing terrible trouble—woohoo!—and my teacher, probably relieved that the story wasn’t as dull as my other stories, penned, “Interesting—don’t stop” on my paper. I didn’t. I played with that story for years, thinking I’d like to write a novel. Eventually, I got serious about writing a whole novel, start-to-finish, as opposed to just playing with scenes. I studied fiction technique. I wrote and wrote and rewrote. Years later, the tree that grew from that first seed was my first novel, The Believer.

Thoughts on storytelling:

*Everyone creates differently. What works for one writer doesn’t work for another. There’s no one “right” way to create a story. I can talk about how I do it, but eventually you’ll find your own way.

*My first book came from ideas that I’d been working on for years; my second also had its roots in ideas that had been percolating for a long time. But what if you want (or have been assigned by your English teacher) to write a story and you don’t have a clue what to write about? When I sit down to write a new novel, the first thing I do is start brainstorming (I’ll make them guess the word “brainstorming” too. That’s a good long word for hangman). It takes me tons of brainstorming to come up with a new plot. For my current work-in-progress, I have about 48 pages of draft—and 48 pages of brainstorming. In brainstorming, never tell yourself that an idea is stupid. Just jot it down. It doesn’t matter how cheesy it is or how outlandish or even how cliché. Write it down, write down more ideas, play with them, twist them, turn them around, combine them—until in that mess of words, the seed of a story starts to sprout.

*For the last two books I wrote, plus my current W-I-P, I started out only knowing that I wanted to write a suspense novel with a young-ish female protagonist. I had no idea what the story would be. I jotted down idea after idea, searching for a plot. You can start with the question, “What does my character want?” My favorite writing guru, Jack Bickham, calls this a story goal. Your character needs to want something and be willing to fight for it. I’ll ask the young women for some examples from characters they’re familiar with—for instance, what does Harry Potter want? What does Frodo want? What does Luke Skywalker want?

Now—who or what is working to keep your character from achieving his/her goal? Where is the conflict?

We’ll play with that idea in class; I’ll have the girls create a character, come up with a story goal for her, and come up with an antagonist trying to stop her. It will be fun to see what they create.

*Outlining. Some writers write meticulous outlines. Mine are very broad. I need to know where the story is going, but I won’t know all the twists and turns until I write them. During that first draft, I’m constantly returning to my brainstorming file to work my way through problems and figure out new scenes. As a writer, you’ll figure out what works for you. Again, there’s no one “right” way to do it. If meticulous outlines work for you, that's great. If they don't, find what does work.

*”Give yourself permission to write a [lousy] first draft.” I got this advice from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and it’s really stayed with me. I used to polish a lot as I went along and feel it needed to be good, and it took me FOREVER to write a book. Plus, I’d spend countless hours polishing a scene, only to dump the whole thing later. Now, I feel free to write lousy first drafts. I’m free to fumble around and make mistakes and be unpolished or clumsy, and have some of my characters made of cardboard—my goal is to get the novel written. Once it’s written, I have something to work with, and a much better idea of what the story needs and who the characters are, and I can go over it again and again until it’s polished and publishable. This system would drive some people crazy, but it works for me. So my advice is: if you’re trying to write a story and you’re frozen, staring at the screen, unsure what to write, afraid your idea is garbage and your sentences aren’t coming out right---tell yourself that’s okay. It’s a first draft. It’s doesn’t have to be brilliant. Get that story written—and then you can make it brilliant.

Anyway, wow, this blog is really long. Congrats to anyone who reached The End! And wish me luck tonight. I'm hoping the refreshments involve chocolate.


11 Comments:

At 1/13/2010 5:21 PM, Anonymous Lisa Long said...

I will be there tonight (as a yw leader) and I'm really looking forward to it! And I'm also hoping the refreshments involve chocolate. Fruit doesn't count as a dessert!

 
At 1/13/2010 5:50 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

I won't be there tonight.

But great advice :-)

 
At 1/13/2010 9:30 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks, Lisa and Heather!

 
At 1/13/2010 9:40 PM, Blogger Shanda said...

I'm glad you listened to your teacher and didn't stop. :)

 
At 1/14/2010 12:36 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks, Shanda!

 
At 1/14/2010 12:13 PM, Blogger Traci Hunter Abramson said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who brainstorms while writing! I not only write some pretty interesting (translated - lousy) first drafts, but I also give my permission to write out of order. If I get bored, I just skip to something that's more fun. :)

 
At 1/14/2010 12:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You could follow your outline and “tell 'em” a wonderful novel-writing lecture. They’ll nod their heads, be polite if they're good young women, and maybe even ask a question.

Or you could show them a novel.

Throw out a story idea. Point out that that the idea for the story isn't really the plot, because a plot is why a character does what she does. A plot is her motivation. Her reasoning. What drives her to do what she does.

And if you throw out a nebulous story idea, you're obligated to at least show those previously bored-out-of-their-teeny-bopper-minds young women a concrete, very cool plot or two that is born of your initial story idea by, duh, birthing some cool plots lines. Right there in class.

Next you tell 'em about this other, seemingly unrelated, story line, which means you'll have to show 'em some other, very cool, plot lines.

Next, you thicken the story-making stew. Place the plot lines from both story ideas on a collision course by, duh, showing them the collision.

And then, just to push them to the very edge of their Mormon-metal-gray-brown-green-tinted cultural hall chairs, you introduce a third story idea with its related plots, place all three stories on a collision course and totally blow your novel out of the mutual-night water that is sure to result in a climax of California Young Women proportions. Which, if you think about it, is exactly what a novel is—a bunch of compellingly-written short stories, pieced together in some related way (or if its a mystery, seemingly unrelated way until the end which is what you, my dear Stephanie do for a living) so as to position one plot line intersecting with another plot, and another, and another, and yet still another, until you climax at the top before gently lowering the young women into a satisfying conclusion.

Pretty cool, eh? You just managed to teach a group of LDS Young Woman about novel-writing using the most basic of basic writing tools. Show. Don't tell.

Or you could follow your outline.

 
At 1/14/2010 12:57 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Traci, I enjoyed learning more about how you write.

Anon, thanks for the suggestions. The class was last night (and it was very fun listening to the ideas the YW came up with as we discussed some basic fiction writing ideas), but it's always good to have ideas for future use.

 
At 1/14/2010 1:02 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

It's nice to see "pique" spelled correctly. =)

The "lousy first draft" thing is also in the book you recommended by Bickham (Mistakes to avoid)

In high school, we had to do a science project every year. One year, though, they said we could choose to either do a traditional science project, or try our hand at creative writing. Near as I can tell, I was one of the few to take this on. I wrote about 30 typed pages of a James Bond spoof (Like Spy Hard, with less innuendo) Even as a final draft, it's difficult to read now. =)

 
At 1/14/2010 3:07 PM, Blogger Tristi said...

Anon, your suggestions are great. So were Stephanie's. Not only do writers all write differently from each other, but they teach differently from each other. Diversity is awesome. It would make for a pretty boring world if we all did things exactly the same way.

 
At 1/14/2010 7:34 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

I reached the end and I loved it! A bit of advice I love is from John D. Brown. He said, "Throw crap on the garden of your mind and thing will grow." It bascially meant, go ahead and let yourself write a crappy scene/story. Just so long as you're writing, keep it up and you can always improve it. Allow yourself bad/hard days.

Anne Lamott's advice reminded me of that. =]

 

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