It’s time for me to say goodbye to this blog. I need to have more time to write and do other things — though this blog has been a joy to write. Thank you all for your continued support over the last 15 months, and may you, too, find more time to write!
All the best to everyone!
Here’s to all of you: A lovely holiday, a time of peace, a restful break, and great love! I’ll be back after the first of the year. See you then.
No one can predict the future now. No one can make long-range plans. The best we can hope for, to quote Robert Bridges, is “the masterful administration of the unforeseen.” Ride the whirlwind. That’s the most we can do. – Arthur C. Clarke
No one could have predicted what happened in Newtown, CT, last Friday. No one would have ever wanted to predict such a horrific event. Perhaps that is why we humans are spared from knowing the future – the knowledge can be too overwhelming; it would paralyze us from living in the present moment.
Even though I am a writer and people tell me I have a way of putting things into perspective, I cannot offer any words of wisdom for the families who have been affected by this terrible episode. I was unable to writing anything on Friday. Instead, I just held these families in my heart. But perhaps I can offer some advice for those of us not directly involved, who stand on the sidelines wishing we could help in some way.
The psychologist Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, published a book several years ago entitled Writing to Change the World. I’ve noted this book in previous blog entries, but it felt right to offer it up again. She speaks about how writers have a way to voice their concerns, their compassion, and their connectiveness. We are given the gift of words, and at times like these, it is important we use those talents.
Ride the whirlwind of the unexpected events in our lives that call us to respond. We may pen an essay about important topics, create a character who speaks as we would, write a letter to the newspaper, or pen a note to someone we care about. All of these things matter. Use your words, your gifts, your talents and passions – use them to help create a better world.
Please check out my BookPleasure article, “Who Supports Your Writing.”
In an article in The Writers Chronicle (Oct/Nov 2012), Richard Goodman notes, “There are certain things the beginning of your story can do . . . . But there is one thing it must do: compel the reader to continue reading, or, to put it another way, make the reader unable not to read on. If the reader stops cold after the first line, it doesn’t matter what else that line does, or what follows.”
We’ve all heard that our openings need to be strong, but sometimes we just can’t get the right first line. Perhaps it’s due to fear. Joan Didion said first lines limit us. So many options are gone once you have decided on your first sentence. And then the second line? Well, the piece has been almost entirely dictated to us based on just that limited bit of information.
When I taught college composition classes, I often told my students to write the first paragraph after they had written the entire paper. That way they were free to explore what they wanted to say and able to shape their essay or research paper without being shackled by the introductory paragraph.
It’s not so easy with fiction, but taking this type of approach may help if you are struggling to make your opening intriguing to your readers. If you have a story or book and aren’t satisfied with the way it begins, think about what is compelling about your story that you could sum up in one or two sentences. What could your character do or think that would be compelling?
Take a look at some of your favorite stories and see how they open? What was enticing about the first line or two? Do they give you ideas about how to restructure your beginning?
No matter how compelling your story, you need a strong beginning. Think about how you react to seeing anything or anyone for the first time, says Goodman. “”Your senses are attuned. Your expectations are high. You are looking intently at what’s there. . . . “things are noted and stored, judgments made with an alert, impressionable mind.” Make your audience curious enough to continue the journey with you.
This weekend I was speaking with a woman who is an aerial dance instructor and performer. Susan was working on a piece for a show about ancestors and said she was supposed to have an oral piece included with it. Would I help her? She was dedicating her piece to her great-grandmother who, Susan said, was an incredibly accomplished woman during her times, including being the first woman attorney in Georgia.
Susan is a very creative individual, but she is not a writer, and she wasn’t sure what she could say about her great grandmother. I suggested she use freewriting – a common technique writers use to go deeper and flesh out what they want to say. But freewriting, by itself, might not offer her the results she was looking for. It would probably be an awkward exercise for her to just jump into.
Susan told me about a technique dancers use where they close their eyes and just move with the music, without any preconceived plan for dancing. It helps them connect with their bodies and their intuition. That seemed just the right exercise to pair with freewriting, so I suggested she move this way first for maybe 15 minutes or so, while thinking about her great-grandmother. Then once, she felt a connection with her great grandmother, she should let the music continue and take pen to paper (not computer) and begin a 15-minute freewriting session (I gave her the “rules”), beginning with something she had thought of while dancing.
After this first session, she I suggested she read through what she had written and find something in it she wanted to explore more, then continue this process once a day until she was satisfied with what she wanted to say about her great-grandmother. She liked the idea of freewriting, and I liked the idea of pairing it with something creative from her field to make it more meaningful and a way to connect with the exercise.
I’m sure there are many other ways to combine creative writing exercises with visual arts, dancing, music, and more. If you have ideas, please share them with us!
E.M. Forster wrote: “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. Flat characters . . . in their purest form . . . are constructed round a single idea or quality; when there is more than one factor toward them, we get the beginning of a curve toward the round.”
How do we do that?
We come to know our main characters as best as we can. We do that through a number of ways. One is through back stories.
Just like all of us, your character has a back story — some elements may impact your story, others may not. But it’s a good idea to write the basic past of your character:
- Write a timeline of all the main events in her life.
- Was there childhood trauma? What was it and how did it impact his psyche?
- Was there any other kind of trauma?
- What are her secrets – big and small?
- Does he want revenge for something that happened to him?
- What are her wants in life that stem from her past?
- How does his past intrude in his life now, in terms of memories? When something happens to him or he hears certain things, do these events invoke certain memories or reactions?
- What do you know about your character that she doesn’t know about herself?
Developing the back stories for your characters help you create more realistic and complicated characters.
We don’t really know our characters until we see what they do in an unexpected situation. When that happens, we gain new insight into their personalities and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, however, in the middle of your story is not the place where you want this to happen, because your character may do something you never expected – something out of character – and you will need to go back and recalibrate him or her.
One way to really get to know your character – besides all the lists we make that give descriptions and lists favorite dreams and kinds of cars they drive – is to use writing exercises to put your characters into strange situations and see what they do:
Her mother show up unexpectedly after everyone thought she had died.
He gets trapped in his car in a snowstorm with no cell phone service.
She knows her house is just about to get foreclosed on.
He finds his wife has a grown daughter he never knew about.
She gets hit by a car and loses her memory, except she remembers her former lover, but not her husband.
He’s just seen a ghost.
The list goes on and on – make up something. Test your character and see what you learn.