The Story Idea Box

On a shelf in my bookcase, there is an old shoe box, where I deposit all kinds of items that I find as I go about my day.  They are, to the casual eye, mundane in nature and unremarkable to anyone but myself, and range from a broken pair of glasses to a phone number that had yet to be assigned by the phone company. [1]  Each item is a mysterious talisman, a little bit of manna from heaven that can lead me down the rabbit-hole of a story.

But what is most intriguing to me is the brief note and postcard left inside a book.

While browsing the local library bookshop, I came across a hardcover edition of In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote.  Having never read it, I pulled it off the shelf and opened it.  A folded note and a postcard featuring the Cartwrights of Bonanza! fell out.

The note was written to a woman named Leslie, in which the author expressed gratitude for the cost of a plane ticket (which she caught with twenty minutes to spare) and a wig.  The rest of the note mentioned a visit and some work via the computer, as well as reimbursement for the ticket.  There was no date, no reference to which side of the coast the author had visited, but the magic was done.

What prompted the author of the note to get a wig and why was she in a rush to catch a flight?

And thus, the beginning of a mystery – or a thriller – or even a tale of horror – has been set.

Where does it lead?

Only you, my dear writer, can answer that.

And now, it’s time to begin your own Story Idea Box.

 

[1] There’s a story behind that mysterious, unassigned phone number, but that’s for a later post.

How to Help a Writer Get Her Muse Back

I love working with writers who are passionate about their creative lives and want to dig deeper to unearth their voice through the richness of their work.

What I’m creating here is for you and you, alone, dear Writer.  The goal is for you to be bold and fierce with the story that wants – NEEDS – to be told, to stand in your power against any and all advice that goes against your instincts and to ignore trends that change on a whim.  What we are about to do is go on an adventure to listen to your muse and unearth your voice.

How will this occur?  By shaking up your writing – to that, I will be offering you a sanctuary, where you can feel safe to express yourself.  Remember, in the arts, there are no wrong answers, no wrong choices. There is only a wealth of very interesting detours and where they might lead is anyone’s guess.

There will be posts here on this blog, one-on-one editing sessions for when you’re ready to take that leap of faith, and, eventually, on my Patreon site and through podcasts.

I love engaging with you, Dear Client, about your work and I will especially love being able to assist you in finding the tools you need to find your own way, in the manner that suits your own needs.

Now, let’s set forth!  Are you with me?

To Grow as a Writer, Let Go of the Manuscript

Sometimes, the hardest part about being a writer is letting go of your manuscript and sending it out to an editor.

The world you’d created, breathed life into and fleshed out with characters might not be viewed in the same way as you view it.  Neither will Person A read it the same way as Person B.  It can be very nerve-wracking to share one’s writing with a close friend or a relative, let alone having an editor look it over.

It can also be frustrating if you and the editor do not have compatibility in working together or have extreme ideas about your work.  If this happens, do not be afraid to thank the editor, pay them for their time and seek out someone else.  [1]  It is in the best interest of your writing that you find an editor with whom you can communicate, learn from their notes and enjoy a working professional relationship with.  [2]

Handing one’s work over to an editor requires a few things on the part of the writer:

  • vulnerability (to allow one’s work be criticized);
  • courage (to accept that one’s work might not be everyone’s cup of tea);
  • a willingness to work (by way of notes from the editor);
  • patience (because each work, writer and editor have different styles and needs).

As a writer myself, I understand how difficult it is to allow another set of eyes to read your work and form an opinion that might not always be flattering.  It is nerve-wracking, unsettling and you live on pins and needles until you get your manuscript back with notes.  And when the initial shock is over and you get back to work, using those notes as a guide, you discover that what was good can be made better.

When going over your editor’s notes, make sure you have that most important tool – coffee.

 

[1] It has been my experience that editors will generally have a minimum number of hours that they’re willing to work.  This is helpful as you search for one that you can work well with.

[2] You can always learn from an editor you like and work well with, but don’t throw out what was gained from the editor you didn’t work well with.  You may find, after some time has passed, that their thoughts were right on the money, though not perhaps not phrased in a way that you were willing to hear.

A Sample Edit (Stage Script)

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

So sayeth Polonius, in William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet.

In a rather pedantic and wordy speech where he makes this statement, Polonius (father of Ophelia and Laertes) is advising his listener, Claudius, (and the audience) that being brief will get to the heart of the matter.

In other words, cut out the unnecessary words and get to the point.

While revising my two-act stage play, I joked about how easy it was to tell that I’m a novelist, not a playwright.  How did I come by this observation?  The obvious culprit is the word count – as I revised my script, I cut some lines down from twenty words to ten.  The line still conveyed what I wanted it to say, but it was concise, it was clear, and, more importantly, understood.

Look at the image to the right:

Original draft.

The dialogue between Catamitus and Melpomene is incredibly wordy, more suited to a novel than a script.  Whether it’s a screenplay or a stage play, the dialogue must be crisp, tight and minimal to do its work.

While some scriptwriters/playwrights can get away with wordy passages, it’s in part because A. They’ve been writing a long time in that form and know the rules and how to use them or break them; and B. The language is still concise and to the point.

Scripts are for a visual medium, whether it’s for the screen or for the stage – the audience is presented with subtext that can be seen via the actors and the cameras.  There is no need for the narrative filler, as in a short story or novel – the director and the actors bring that to life through trial and error in rehearsal.

Let’s take a look at the revised version of the scene:

Revised draft.

Compare the original draft with the revised version to the left.  Notice that the lines have been revised and arranged differently.

Did the intent change from Original Draft to the Revised Version?

No, the intent is still the same between Catamitus and Melpomene – resolving the confusion surrounding the issue of hotel reservations.  Notice how the dialogue has been broken up, refined and shortened – when in performance, the dialogue is snappy, almost coming one on top of the other.

That is the purpose of revision – to produce a maximum image or emotion while using the minimum amount of words.  Whether it’s a script or a short story or a novel, less is more and writing is constant re-writing.

Research Can Be Fun

When one hears the word research, it is not often connected to the word fun.  It automatically conjures up the image of surrounding oneself with dusty tomes in a poorly lit room, away from distractions of the world outside.  Or of scientists in remote castles wanting to play the role of God by re-animating a corpse.  Or students groaning over an assignment that requires five legitimate sources that does not include Wikipedia.

Despite my own initial dismay at having to do the work needed, I actually enjoy the act of research.  Whether it includes reading on topics I’m not familiar with (or have a passing knowledge of), I love learning.  Even though my own writing is primarily fiction, I want to make sure that my facts are accurate.  This is especially the case if I’m writing about a time period or area I did not live in.  Or, if there’s a life experience that I do not have, I make sure to read and ask questions so that I have at the very least a basic understanding.

Research can be done in a variety of ways (reading, asking questions of people in relevant fields, or even learning a skill), so it doesn’t have to be viewed as a boring and burdensome task.  If you approach it with the view that what you learn is as valuable as a 15th century gold doubloon (which it is), then once the initial dismay passes (which it will), then the ensuing action becomes a hunt for treasure (which knowledge always is).

What you turn up may surprise you in countless ways that you did not foresee.

From a Writer’s Point of View

As a writer, it’s important to me to create the best possible work I can. In order to do that, I need an objective pair of eyes to comb through the manuscript, picking out character agency, weak plot points, and grammar. There are methods for doing this yourself, but I don’t recommend it, as you may overlook details (or lack thereof) that someone else will find.

When going over your editor’s notes, make sure you have that important tool – coffee.

Whether it’s a novel, a script or a short story, every writer will create a not-so-great first draft. In order to shape it into something better, a writer then turns to an editor for assistance. In some cases, an editor can help with a story that has stalled out half way through.

When I was working on my current novel, I stalled out in the middle. I’d already cannibalized a short story into the novel, which gave it layers I hadn’t expected. However, I had no sense of what was going to happen next. There were a couple of scenes written out, but I had no idea of where to put them, and no clear, definitive, final wrap-up to the story.

I was stuck, in the truest sense of the word. I needed help. So I found an editor who helped to jump-start a new direction for the Narrator and the story itself. In two five-hour editing sessions, I had gotten past the block and found myself at the story’s end.

How did this happen? I set aside my ego and listened to what my editor had to say. There were points I didn’t necessarily agree with, which pushed me to find a way to make those points work within the story. If I was successful, they stayed in – if not, I ultimately took them out. It was a difficult thing to do, excising portions of my novel (particularly if it was a character I liked), but that’s what the sequel is for. [1]

Ultimately, as a writer, if I want my work to improve, I need to pay attention to my editor, who also acts as my mentor. The relationship between an editor and a writer is symbiotic – when the two click, the work is a joy (even if it’s still frustrating). When it doesn’t, thank the editor for their time and effort and look for someone with whom you can develop a long, professional relationship with.

Every experience with an editor, even one that doesn’t work out, is a positive one – it helps you focus on your work, your voice and your goal.

That goal? To hone your craft and create your best work.

A blank page is both exciting and terrifying.
Where will that first word lead?

[1] The character in question went through nine name changes and switched nationalities – if he hadn’t been so endearing, I’d have written him off long ago.

Choose Your Words Wisely

When beginning his next novel, Stephen King will spend weeks, if not months, on perfecting the story’s opening sentence.  He does this to find that particular invitation readers will find too tempting to pass up.  When he has that perfect opening sentence, the rest of the story flows.

To craft that opening line, which establishes character and setting, you need to have something that hooks the reader.  To do that,  you need to find the right words to unlock the idea you’ve been haunted by into something larger.

Speaking of haunted – here’s an example of a gripping opening line by the incomparable Shirley Jackson:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. [1]

Immediately following that sentence is the introduction of Hill House, reputedly haunted, not lived in and still kept in pristine order by a couple from the local village.  Each sentence builds on the next and you are drawn into the lives of four people, determined to prove that Hill House is haunted.  Although it averages two hundred or so pages, it is tightly constructed, spare and ambiguous, leaving you wondering – is Hill House haunted or is it all a figment of Eleanor’s mind?

And neatly tying it all together, the final sentence of the novel echoes the final sentence of the opening paragraph – and whatever walked there, walked alone.

[1] The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

(The annotation below is brilliant.)

View at Medium.com

A Sample Edit (Web Page)

In this post, I’ll be demonstrating a before and after of a sample text from the About page of a restaurant.
After examining several other pages for a similar type of business, I decided to use this mock-up version:
The Blue Suede Shoe Bar is an environment for enjoying peaceful conversations either inside, or, on the patio, while enjoying our food offerings and sipping on excellent wines, ports, beers, and/or spirits.  Our wine list has been carefully crafted to provide excellent wines at reasonable prices.  Our list features a mix of ‘by the glass’ and ‘by the bottle’ reds.  All of our delicious whites are ‘by the glass’.  Many are wines that one can find nowhere else except the vineyard itself! Expect to taste great wine.
We offer fantastic music six nights each week with a focus on quality singer-songwriters, duos, and the occasional trio, the musical entertainment is designed to enhance your enjoyment of those you are with but not overwhelm it (having said that, we do occasionally let the hair down and bring in a band that ‘cranks it out’!).  Music is usually performed from 8:30pm-10:30pm Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.  On Mondays and Sundays music is typically 6:30pm-8:30pm.  Thursdays are an eclectic mix of music and spoken word (please call to discover what is scheduled for ‘your’ Thursday!).  The spoken word will be called Blue Suede Shoe Tales. This will be true life, first person story-telling. Working in conjunction with a local and the wildly successful Storytelling Festival we will provide an environment in which to perfect the art.
Something a little bit special in downtown, we hope that you come and enjoy this ‘Casually Elegant’ space.

The above example is giving a lot of good and detailed information of what is offered at this restaurant, but it is broadly written.  This can easily be too overwhelming for a potential customer, who may be quickly scanning the web for a place to eat.  In many cases, the customer would skip over that site and go on to the next one.

Simplicity is best.

Taking the same information, I’ve distilled and presented it this way:
Located downtown, the Blue Suede Shoe is the hot-spot for good food, excellent wines and local and guest musicians to display their talents.
From Wednesday to Sunday, the piano keys are tickled in time with guitar and drums, bringing original songs and covers from other bands.
Tuesdays are reserved for trivia, wherein knowledge of the minutiae is a highly coveted skill.  For each round won, a team of six receives free shots made specifically for the game.  At the end, the winning team of the game overall are served a fruit and cheese platter with chocolate cake.
Outdoor patio seating provides a lovely ambiance for dinner and drinks.  The wines are carefully selected by the owner from California wineries.  There are a mixture of wines available sold by the glass or by the bottle and, whichever you choose, you won’t be disappointed.  A cocktail list is currently being revised, to accompany the standard choices.
For an eclectic and casually elegant dining experience, the Blue Suede Shoe Bar is that something a little bit special you might be looking for.

See the difference?  The same information, presented differently, creates two very different pictures of the same restaurant.

The Importance of Deadlines

Deadlines are intimidating.  Let’s get that out of the way right now.  They are marked on your calendar in bold, black ink.  They taunt your lack of motivation and constantly remind you that time is growing short.

So what happened?  You have a project that you’ve been assigned.  There’s a goal to get it finished by a certain day.  There’s excitement and energy as you outline and prepare and can visualize the final result.  You can hardly wait to get started.

Then that dreaded procrastination sets in and you find every excuse in the book to avoid getting started.  Laundry has become The Most Important Thing.  And the kitchen needs to be re-organized and cleaned.  Or the garage.  Everything else seems to have taken on a higher degree of importance over the project with its dreaded deadline.  I know this very well – I’ve been there.

Photo Credit: Source Unknown

The trick, then, is to change how one views deadlines.  Rather than see them as obstacles to overcome or stifling one’s creative nature, choose to see the deadline as a cheerleader, urging you forward.  Block out a segment of time for the project that is manageable to your schedule.  Do as much work as possible within that blocked out time.  Always remember to breathe.

 

Deadlines can be intimidating to the point of avoidance.  By embracing it as a friend, a cheerleader and a challenge, you will be able to tap back into that excitement for your project.

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