Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Lesson 2: How do I weave all my ideas into a story?

I have lots of fragments of ideas, but how do I bring all these snippets together into a story?
Early planning stage of one of my PhD chapters - old school cut and paste
I outsourced this one to Twitter.

Pick the ideas that provide great turning points. And the ones that give it a twist. Throw out the rest and start writing. Add fresh ideas as they come.

I like to take a few idea snippets that aren't naturally matchy, and see what happens when I stick them together. Usually, good story grows in the gaps between them.

Write down every snippet, every idea - always. If they don't pertain to any current story, just dump them into a file (I call mine The Abyss because I loved that movie & it was released when my file started). If you're ever stuck for an idea or direction, look in the file.

Put the ideas onto separate sticky notes than arrange them into groups which feel like they belong together. Then summarise each group onto new sticky notes and discard the originals. Then take these new sticky notes and form them into a sequence or timeline.

Sometimes, when you take two unrelated story ideas and bang them together, you get sparks.

I have fragments of sea glass, interesting stones, gumnuts and nibbled-on leaves scattered on shelves around the house. They’re tiny treasures with little purpose; much like the story ideas I jot down simply because daydreaming is so fun. It all exercises creative muscle.

I write vignettes around interests and then step back to find the bigger picture. I think this is a natural process for poets ie. an image or idea leads you into a piece, then individual pieces get shuffled and sorted to shape a collection.

This is such a good question. I think mine accrete around a kernel. Orchard was ‘what if kids find a magic thing and have to stop it being demolished?’ Then added a local, a newcomer, a weirdo, family, some silly things, secrets, jokes. Editing was working out which didn’t belong

I forget my snippets almost immediately, but if I remember them enough times they prove themselves worthy to make it into the first draft

As an editor I'd say don't take ALL of them, focus on and develop one idea through into a story. Sometimes two 'snippets' will wrap around or resonate with each other ... but you don't ever want a story to have too many ideas

After I have ideas that spark off each other (and discard others) I think about whose story it is first, then I think about possible structure elements to pull it all together a bit.

I... don't? I don't think that's how my story-making works. Exactly. Maybe. Now I'm confused...

As for me, I agree with Sherryl that character is the way forward. The novel, The Endsister, started with a conversation I had with my middle child when they were very young. I had a phrase (‘I know what an endsister is’), which immediately implied three characters: someone to say it, someone to hear it and ‘the endsister’. Who these characters are, and how this phrase changes them was key to unlocking the plot of the story (see Carole's note above about turning points). Taking some of your 'snippets' and ascribing them to characters may a way to proceed.

Also stories are dynamic: stasis and disruption. Someone once told me that the reason a river twists and turns is because water wants to be round, it wants to be a pool. Stories are like this, a chain of pools (static moments), tugged along by the current. I guess in this analogy your characters are the little leaf-boats eddying along on the surface, struggling against the odds to stay afloat.

Put it into action
Make a list of all the things you are interested in writing about, all the snippets of ideas that you have for a story. Write each one on a post it note. Now spend some time sorting through them, putting them next to each other, seeing if you get any "sparks". Collect a bunch that seem like they go together. Place the ones you discard aside for now (don't throw them away).

Now take another piece of paper and put an x on it to divide the sheet into four sections. Give each section a title: Character, Plot/Story, Theme, Imagery. Divide your ideas between them. Are there any areas that are empty? Are there too many post it notes in one section (hint: if they are all in imagery and theme and there are none in character or plot you don't have your story idea yet). Do you need to go back to your discarded pile?

Just for fun, try moving some of them around. Put things that seem like characterisation in themes, or turn images into plot. What happens if you introduce a random sticky note from your discard pile? What sort of river bends have to happen to accommodate that shift? Sometimes it's the unexpected bends and deviations that give your story momentum.

Once you're happy that you have a bit of a spread across the four domains and you can see your story coming into shape, try arranging your sticky notes into a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or just start writing. Stuck at the first words? Open a book to a random page, find a word or a phrase and use it to begin. I'll do another mini lesson on finding/constructing a narrative voice soon.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Lesson One: Showing and Telling

How do I balance showing and telling in (especially) genre fiction like fantasy and sci fi. How do I reveal plot points in a short story?

Warning this passage contains minor spoilers for Kelly Link's The Faery Handbag. You may want to read it first. 

There are two things at play here. How much do you need to tell? (That is, can you leave things implied? Unsaid? Mysterious?) Or if you do need to reveal information in a straightforward way, at one point should you do that? Can it be trickled in, or is it easier if you just drop it on the page and have it out there.  Here’s an example of a story that focuses on worldbuilding first, The Faery Handbag It’s a long short story (8000 words). But the first 566 or so words (7%) sets up place, character and atmosphere (creating a sense of magical possibility without stepping over into full fantasy). Then the next group of sentences set up the transition into the main premise of the story.

EXERCISE: Print out the first 673 words (up to ‘But it’s true’.) With a pen in your hand, do a straight line underneath sentences, phrases or images that feel very grounded in the real world, familiar and realistic. Use a wibbly line to mark passages, images or phrases that feel other-worldly or imbued in magical possibility. See how the author does the work of both drawing you into the world of the story by anchoring you with concrete imagery and opening up new possibilities to take the reader where she needs them to go by implying a heightened reality, or strangeness within the familiar.

It’s at the 5724 word mark (71% into the story) that we are told exactly what this narrator’s problem is, what the big problem that drives the story is and even then this problem never gets completely solved in the story – the story is about the slow reveal of the world. Sometimes the whole story is really just about revealing the story so far.

Black Swan Event by Margo Lanagan relies on some prior knowledge of fairy tales. Maybe you have that knowledge, maybe you don’t. Does the story come together for you? Try using the same technique from above – identifying the grounding passages and the more defamiliarizing or mysterious passages. How does the story deviate from your expectations, how does it meet it? Does the setting make the story more or less strange?

Writing exercise:
1. Set a timer for five minutes. Make a list of abstract nouns (awe, courage, law, love etc). Find a method for randomly choosing one. (Cut them up and put them in a hat, ask someone else to choose one for you, close your eyes and point...) This is the theme of your story.

2. Draw a map of somewhere you know well. It could be your own street, a route you take every day (such as your trip to work, uni or school), a wild place you used to play in as a child. Take your time over the map. Put in as much detail as you can. Annotate it with memories and story snippets (birdseed lady's house, barking dog etc).

3. Take a fairy tale and write out the main plot points and motifs. For example, Hansel and Gretel: poverty, cruel or weak parents, pebbles shining in the moonlight, birds and breadcrumbs, a candy house, a stranger, a bird cage, an oven, gold).

4. Combine your personal map with the fairy tale story twists and turns and motifs (you may, like Margo Lanagan's story, take up long after the original story leaves off, or you may, like Kelly Link, repurpose one specific motif to create an original fairy tale) to tell a story that explores your theme.