Friday, January 18, 2019

Beginning a Story or Populating Your Beach

    Beginning a new story is like sunrise at the beach.  Slowly, light appears over the horizon. Brighter and brighter to empty beach.  Well, not quite empty.  The light is an idea, a glimpse, a voice, a detail, flitting though my head.

Quick! Catch it. Catch it right NOW before it flies off to join the bog of other ideas in the back of my head...the ones I forgot to write down.

I grab my jot journal--the one full of disjointed phrases and conversation bits that make no sense to anyone but me.  I scribble down whatever the light revealed to a way that I will remember it the next time I read it. (My first jot journal contained all kinds of cryptic notations that made no sense when I looked at them later.)

Let entry marinate a day or so.

Go back to jot journal. Decide if what seemed brilliant a couple days ago, still shines as brightly. Assuming it does, find other journal where I Work On Things. I write down as much as I know about that tiny bright spot on the empty beach of my mind. Sometimes it's a sentence (on rare occasions, the FIRST sentence...which was the case with Yankee Girl and First Grade Stinks). Sometimes it's a character description, or a disembodied character carrying on a monologue. I write it down. I write until I run out of stuff to say. I stick a Post-It note on the page, with the date, and shorthand for the idea, sticking out like a book mark.

Then I put it away for a couple of months.

At some point I will 1) remember that idea or 2) find the idea in the IWOT journal while I'm looking for a DIFFERENT idea. I will either decide that the idea is too thin to bother with, or discover that in the intervening months, more ideas, themes, and characters have bubbled to the surface, begging to join the original thought.

Thin ideas stay where they are. I never throw anything out. Some of those turn into something more, years later (Camp K-9 and A Tree for Emmy are two of those). Sometimes not. You never know.

I look at the idea I am now married to for the next year or so, and do an inventory. How well do I know these characters who have moved into my life?  What other information do I need for this story? Then follows three or four months of basic research.(Amazing the number of facts you need to know to write even a picture book,),

I also get to know my characters. They obligingly show up at odd moments (the back seat of the car, or the foot of my the middle of the night) and want to talk to me. Or to each other.

After a couple of months of nailing down facts and talking to characters, I take another look at my beach.

Wow. It's full of people meandering around...little groups here and there, engaged in a scene. The beach is also littered with piles of props (my researched facts) I know my characters need, but they don't seem to be using them. It's up to me to show them their props, and tell them how to use them. I need to put those scattered groups acting out scenes in some sort of sequence.

My beach is full, but chaotic. This chaos is called pre-writing. Now it's time to get my ducks and characters and facts in a row. Time to write that first draft.

And that's how I start a story.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Endings and Beginnings

The Old Year
--John Clare, 1793 – 1864

The Old Year's gone away
     To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
     Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
     In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none.

And welcome to the New Year!

I am reminded of what T.S. Elliot once said, that last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words are yet to be written.

So now we have an opportunity to begin a new story. A blank page is in front of me, and I’m still trying to figure out my first line. It’s intimating, writing that first line. An argument can be made that the beginning of the story is the most important. First impressions and all. In fact Jacob Appel suggests in his article, 10 Ways to Start Your Story Better, that the fate of most literary endeavors is sealed within the initial paragraph, “and that the seeds of that triumph or defeat are usually sown by the end of the very first sentence.”

“In writing, as in dating and business, initial reactions matter. You don’t get a second chance, as mouthwash commercials often remind us, to make a first impression.”

Consider these iconic first lines:

Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice (1813): It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851): Call me Ishmael.

George Orwell, 1984 (1949): It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities (1859) : It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850): Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451(1953): It was a pleasure to burn.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1953): It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937): Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

So I wrote my first line, to my new story. It reads:

To see the elephant: an American expression popular in the 19th century. It means to gain experience, overcome unexpected dangers and face the miseries of life, but at an extraordinary cost.

Well, I’ll work on it.

What is the first line to your new story?

Bobbi Miller