on writing

Story 101 Ep. V: Your Very Important Person

Your personal doubt-killer is whoever you want it to be.

The critic inside all of us lives a cushy existence. She doesn’t create. She doesn’t contribute. She doesn’t have anything nice to say. We each have one, unless you’re so doped up on something–be it caffeine or alcohol–that she’s having a lie-down in the back. In which case she’ll probably be snotty about what you wrote later, particularly since she didn’t get to have a go at it the first time.

We all have one. Mine looks like a girl from my college years, and yours may look like your varsity soccer coach.

But perhaps the best part of writing creatively is that it reminds us that we have imaginations. And just as our brains are bent on inventing us some spiteful opinionated backseat driver, it can produce us a Most Valuable Player–our favorite, most prized, most gold-star-giving, A-for-awesome reader.

Real or imaginary, this person is your Audience. Write for him. If something doesn’t make sense, clarify so he understands. If you find yourself explaining too much, think from his perspective and see if you’re talking down to him. If you hate this scene, imagine what would grab his attention. If you think the dialogue sounds forced, picture how he would hear it, as if playing in the background on TV.

Charming critics is for the academics. Unless you love them. Then charm them to death.

As for me, I will not kill myself to avoid entertainment style noveling, the popular sort from which Rilke discouraged his young poet friend, i.e., at all costs remain in the mountains and let the organ by which you create–your life–atrophy into disuse; go on making art, the highest of its kind, since life is a support system for art, and art is for the smart kids; blah blah blah. On the contrary, one) it’s no fun being stuck-up and two) my Favorite Person would enjoy reading an entertaining high fantasy novel. So I will write them one.

Who is this for? Whoever you choose.

Get creating, doubt-crushers.

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on writing

Story 101, Ep. IV: Events, Embryos, Essentials

The original source of these ideas remains sketchy in my memories; perhaps this bit was a talk on divine artistry by Tim Keller. But if your story holds most or all of these elements, I could almost guarantee it automatically rocks. These are the seeds of existence–and the stuff that addicts us to your narrative world.

  • a birth: an actual birth, a beginning of a dream, a newness
  • a death: a real death of someone we love or someone we have just met or someone who affects someone we love—because life is fragile, is it not? And ends are as vast in meaning as beginnings.
  • a marriage: a great love, a union against all odds, the meeting of souls in an otherwise chaotic realm that is Real Life–because be it, as it is, fraught with meaning, it is also chaotic, and love is a time-space-and-spirit miracle.
  • a redemption*: a making of peace, a cycle back to the beginning of the events and a renewing of what was once new and went wrong, a happy ending (*note: a tragedy will never come round to this, but we sit, reading, waiting, wishing for what could have been, and in this way, redemption is alluded to. I think of Nick’s green light at the end of Gatsby: a longing for a dream that never delivered.)

These are like the meat-and-potatoes of your story. If you avoid these in the name of “not getting too heavy,” you lose what may be called “Stakes.” What are the consequences of Ivy not retrieving that medicine in time? Oh gosh darn it, she gets a big headache is not nearly as compelling as then her true love dies. 

Modern and postmodern tales toy with these elements in order to pose questions against our narrative expectations. I recall my sister’s fascination with Hitchhiker’s Guide and the detritus of events that made her laugh (or cry) in their brutal nonsensicality. But the stories that inspire and incline earth-folk to greatness–at least, so I would argue–echo the Monomyth structure and involve each of these elements, literally or metaphorically.

On another note, I’ve also been toying with Dan Harmon’s Plot Embryo method (see Rachael Stephen’s practical application of it here and Harmon’s succinct explanation here)—and loving it.

Keep your eyes open for Episode V (concerning bullets 6. and 7.)!

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Story 101, Ep. III: Humans vs. Characters

“Characters” smell of stereotype and fiction.

If you met a character at a bus stop, you wouldn’t want to have a conversation with him–it would feel as forced as sitcom dialogue–and you’d wonder what was wrong with his face. Humans, on the other hand, have quirks and patterns of behavior that fit within the scope of their humanness. They wouldn’t try to talk to you at a bus stop or they most certainly would; they’d talk to a fence post and have a good time at it. But they’d be real. And given the number of examples we have surrounding us, I wonder why it’s so hard?

Collect people like stamps and try to capture their essence in as few of words as possible. If you read it later and can’t remember who they were, how they made you feel, then you can’t use it, which is too bad. But the pretty people aren’t usually memorable anyways, and the ones carrying Rottweiler puppies or a beard to their knees are so striking as to be astounding. You couldn’t possibly have a motiveless character who wears Undertaker shirts and bounces fat babies on their hip.

Don’t be afraid to borrow and don’t so much as write your characters as find them.

Look for Episode IV (concerning bullet 5.)!

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Story 101, Ep. II: Problems and More Problems

Don’t give it to ’em easy.

I’ve come to think of problem-invention as a parallel to my experience befriending people in Southeast Asia. American culture affords the sort of fast best-friendship that springs from extroverted social norms and bonding over sports teams or favorite authors, which immediate heart-to-hearts follow. This is not the case, though, for “cold cultures” — like introverted quiet sister Thailand. Culturally reserved but friendly, Thais accidentally feed the lie that you are not only friends but good ones. In a little bit, with some effort and time, you will be invited for dinner. You’ll think: “We’re totally friends!” But you’re not. When a wall comes flying up from a trapdoor in the ground, it’ll nearly clip you, and you may feel angry. Around the third or fourth time this happens, you’ll get discouraged at the thought of ever becoming as good of friends as you think you are. But still, you plow onward, and then another wall nearly takes off your nose. You may be in the jungles for a good few years before one day your Thai “acquaintance” will look at you and think and look at you and think and finally ask you what your favorite color is.

As soon as the main problem dies, your story is over.

The temptation as a creator is to invent the world you wish you had and make your characters flourish in it. But this is where we may mirror Real Life, which may not make a living off it but does enjoy a good dabble of thwarting. We learn through struggle, so let your characters struggle. Give them a problem relevant to their goal and let them want it so bad, their wanting bleeds through the pages and makes us match our breathing to theirs. Then thwart them.

On your character’s road to actualizing his or her goal, there are spring-loaded doors in the ground. But the more walls, the bigger the pay-off. I’ll never forget how happy I was to answer: “It’s green! Green green green!”

Keep an eye out for Episode III (concerning bullet 4.)!

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Story 101, Ep. I: Bullets from an Unknown Source

One night while brainstorming, I rediscovered some old notes on my phone.

There were piece-y observations from my people-watching days: an old pilot whose laugh came in chopped “ha ha ha”s that, if it weren’t so real, would sound fake; a white man speaking fluent Spanish with his Latina girlfriend and refusing to look at the other Anglos, though I could hear him translating their sale pitches under his breath; a wraith thin girl with symmetrical lip piercings, whispering hush hush to the puppy laying in complete silence in her arms…

There were a few sermon notes and a series of the briefest seventh sense type sensations. You know, those odd psychosomatic feelings that happen in everyday life and you know you have to record it, or you won’t get just the right words next time it happens to your created humans.

Then there was the untitled note with bullet points and ideas from who-knows-where.

It read–

“Storytelling:

  1. there is always a problem

  2. begin new strings where old have ended

  3. main characters are always learning new things, about each other, about themselves

  4. HUMANS, not characters

  5. birth, death, marriage, redemption

  6. ‘you can charm the critics and have nothing to eat'”

  7. who is this for?

I have the vaguest suspicion that these thoughts sprang from an interview with Stephanie Meyer, the author of Twilight, that I read in some writing forum or other. And while Ms. Meyer has been brutalized in the literary world for her writing skills (or, some argue, lack thereof), I will defend her in the case of storytelling. Which is of course what we’re talking about. She made her millions because she could tell a story that kept you reading. And that’s more than can be said for a number of writers I’ve read.

Keep your eyes peels for Episode II (concerning bullets 1., 2., and 3.)!

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Design concepts for the brand. Brainstorm with your team on how you want to develop your brand visually. This is a crucial step in getting your brand noticed!

 

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