Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Peggy Bechko
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For most people, whether they put it all down on paper or only let loose in day (or night) dreams, the mind can create amazing worlds. And, it frequently does. Guided by its owner or spinning along on its own... busy, busy, busy churning out thoughts.
Have you daydreamed a story? Not necessarily a complete tale beginning to end. Perhaps you've created a pleasant or exciting place in your mind to which you escaped? Everything was there, wasn't it? At that time, in that place, you knew all you needed to know. There were, no doubt, people, animals, colors, tastes, smells, and impressive sights. In that state the 'dreamer' (you) attains a near trance.
A writer soon enough discovers writing is not really a physical act that combines original thought with the motor process of putting the idea down on paper or computer. Rather, writing is a state of being, a time to get into the zone and learn to draw others along with you to that new world you've created.
Now don't panic. It's simple. Probably among the simplest things you ever do if you'll just let go a little. Before we get down to the nitty gritty of writing, think a while. Daydream. Relax. Sit back. Enjoy it. You don't have to put any pressure on yourself. You don't have to be anywhere else. Just let your mind go. Think about the mind thinking about itself. Go circular. Now, what other animal can do that? What other animal would want to? Think we're a little crazy? I have always thought so.
Okay, so now realize that a good writer, a good teller of tales, inserts him or herself into that circle of thought and creation. Really gets into it. The writer can, and does, view the tale from the inside out. In that trance-like state the writer/storyteller wrapped in that circle doesn't stand back from the action to merely observe. Instead she or he experiences the story right along with his or her characters. Then the writer puts that experience into words. Sort of like a movie playing in the writer's head, that you must project outward.
It's the way I wrote for many years, especially when I started. I'd imagine my hero or heroine, an interesting and exciting local, and a nearly insurmountable problem headed in his or her direction. I'd usually set up a sheet for each character (name him or her) I was starting with, then add more description and information as the story came together.
Usually I would write the story as I went. I didn't outline until years later, after I'd written, and had published, several novels.
I simply let go of the restraints of my mind and created a new 'world' and kept notes of the evolution. When I was writing I would live in that world with my characters and watch with interest what they would do next. I would feel and react with them or inject myself into the role of the main character or one of the lesser ones.
Once I faced down the blank page and put those first words to paper, the flow would begin. Images formed in my mind as the story took on shape and direction. Words then spilled rapidly onto the page. Characters took on lives of their own. Then I'd use those character sheets to keep track of them, to make sure they remained true to themselves. You'd be surprised how confused you, as story-teller, can become when you get wrapped up in different aspects of your creation. Don't let that happen to you!
Since your mind has access to pretty much all your past experiences in the form of memories, you can relate to your characters. For example, let's say it's an action story. An Indiana Jones-type character is running for his life, heroically struggling to save the day.
You draw on your own past experience to give the episode color. Remember the rush of a roller coaster ride? How about that moment when you fell off your bike? You probably haven't been chased by bad guys, but maybe that school bully had an impact. I think you get the point here. Use what you have available and expand on it. It's a bit like a word association test. Every word you dredge from your mind and put down on paper has a meaning, a memory, for you.
The trick is to remember that it means something or touches on a memory for your reader as well. And, while it may not have the exact same meaning to you both, there's a lot of common ground out there.
So you want to use your own memories and responses to trigger similar ones in others. To accomplish that, it's important to choose those that fit the overall mood of the scene and the evolving plot. We don't usually relate well to cotton candy and balloons if we're talking murder here. Generally, you don't bring in a hideous monster if you're writing a love story -- unless you're writing a very unusual love story.
TRY THIS: Grab a sheet of paper. Look at the list of short phrases or words below and write down some memories each brings to mind.
Still a little hesitant? Unsure? Here, I'll give it a kick-start.
A PIMPLE: It itched. Absently, Sam scratched the bump rising alongside his nose and flinched as a swift, hot pain darted along in the path of his fingernail. He looked at himself in the mirror with impatience. The pimple was still there. Red, swollen and painful. In fact, it was bigger than he remembered it being only a couple of hours ago. Hesitantly he reached for his sister's tube of make-up that lay on the counter.
Get the idea? Well, hey, I didn't say I was going to write the great American novel here, just an example. A kinda, sorta, do it this way and expand in your own directions.
Not many can forget a painful pimple. The pinch, the sting, the itch. And worse, who can forget the appearance? It's never as bad as the person sporting it believes, but who can convince the character of that? How many can remember carefully applying skin tone makeup and powder in an attempt to conceal the redness? The point here is that all you have to do is mention that word, 'pimple' -- shudder -- and everyone instantly relates.
Remember, people want to feel, smell, and taste your stories. Depending on what play of emotions you choose, where you want to lead the reader, that pimple scene could go in any direction. Comedy: how about the hero going to great lengths to conceal it only to have something embarrassing happen? High drama: Is there a murderer coming up behind our hero while he can fixate on nothing but the offending pimple? Poignant: is the hero painfully shy and that blemish making his world even more constricted?
Allow your mind free rein as you develop your story. Tap into your personal emotional pool and come forth with the details that make the world you've constructed more real. By touching the readers' memories, their emotions, you, the writer, are able to draw them into the world of your creation and forget for a while their own everyday world. The better you do it, the better your story.
So in your role of storyteller, you must set the emotional tone. If the scene you've set is one of fear and suspense, you must reflect that in your choice of words. We don't talk about fluffy bunnies and cute kitties if we've set the stage for possible disaster. That is, unless, that fluffy bunny or cute kitty would add to the suspense. Have you noticed in certain movies and books that you can depend on the plot including a cute and cuddly family pet that predictably gets killed and thus leads up to the rest of the 'horrifying' action? Okay, that works, to a point. The problem is the predictable part.
I've seen it so often that the minute I spot a loving dog or cuddly cat or the daughter's pet rabbit I expect to see it fricasseed in the next scene (or one closely following). So here I add a suggestion: Don't do that! If it's a scene that is necessary, by all means, include it, but try to surprise us, give it a new twist. Don't let us, the readers or the viewers, say, "well, there's Bob the dog, guess he'll buy it in the next few pages."
Because that's another place that memory and emotions lead us. We basically remember everything we've ever seen. A knee-jerk reaction ensues if we've seen something too much. We've created a box in our minds and out pops that darn memory when we least want it. I as the reader/viewer don't want to react that way to 'Bob the dog' and his apparent fate. I might add I'm ever so grateful when somebody does throw in a new twist.
So my advice is to remember the mind when you write. Yours and all those minds out there waiting to buy into your creation. The mind can be mighty sneaky.
And one more thing while we're talking about writing the story: the pace and getting it down on paper. There's a sort of rhythm to writing. Most writers find they have stretches of intense, high octane, write-it-down fast periods coupled with times of calm and others of near boredom. So here's another trick.
Consider you've been on a writer's high, writing like crazy getting your story down. Okay, good. Now, once that long, lovely run unfolds, find a calm, good place to wrap it up, a place where you're in the zone, moving at a more moderate pace after that swift burst, moving forward toward the next explosive rush of inspiration.
When you're in that place, coasting, the next acceleration just in sight, that's the time to stop and for the time being put the pen aside or close down the computer. If you pick a 'calm' to stop after an exciting run it'll be all that much easier to start again later. You'll be excited, eager to begin again. Trust me on this.
There'll be times when you're writing -- journaling, fiction, articles, whatever -- when you'll write on through those dips of calm to another peak, maybe a few times, maybe many times. That's when the inspiration has you by the throat and drags you forward through clear pool and bramble bush and it's a time worth latching on to with all your might. Ride the wave, feel the rush; then, find that place of calm with the next rush just over the horizon to lay your pen to rest.
If you cut off at a peak it's frustrating. If you cut off at the shallowest part of the trough at the base of that peak it's almost boring to get started again. It's as important for you as a writer to engage yourself as it is to touch your audience. If you're bored, so will your reader be bored.
This article originally appeared in Out of Thin Air: A New Writer's Guide for New and Young Writers
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Peggy Bechko has published novels in several genres, western, romance and fantasy as well as in hard copy (hard cover and paperback) and Ebook formats. Her books have been published with Doubleday, Harlequin, Pinnacle and Thorndike Press as well as The FictionWorks online and others. She has additionally written complete spec screenplays, optioning them domestically and abroad. Peggy is also an accomplished ghostwriter, and has published articles in a number of areas. Peggy is the author of Out of Thin Air: A New Writer's Guide for New and Young Writers. Visit her online at http://www.PeggyBechko.blogspot.com.