My wife was telling me about a friend going through some rough times. Personal stuff. Emotional stuff. And she said it was sad. But I disagreed. What this friend is experiencing is certainly challenging, but hardly sad. She’s in a negative situation and needs to get out of it. She needs to find her own place, her own footing, her own voice. And while she may cry a lot about her circumstances, they will make her stronger. One day that friend will look back at this year and know that it was a good year because of what she learned about herself.
This year has been one of those years for me. It hasn’t been sad. But it has been challenging. I prefer to look at it in terms of victories, though. We had to put my father in a memory care home, but that was a victory over confusion. Now he doesn’t have to worry about keeping his finances and groceries straight. My mother passed, but that was a victory over pain, as she had suffered for years with cancer, COPD and spinal issues. I had a regular job I didn’t care for most of the year, but that was a victory over unemployment. Now I have a better job, and my editing business is getting busier and busier.
Every failure leads you down a road toward victory, as long as you keep walking or running or driving in good faith.
If you never experienced defeat, never saw blood, never witnessed suffering or death, then you’d never have thick skin. You’d never overcome. And you probably wouldn’t care.
Suffering makes us stronger. And it makes us care.
I encourage authors to map out their stories before they compose. A story is like a river, with twists and turns, surprise waterfalls and white water rapids in between placid, flowing stretches. A straight-forward story is not like a river. It is like a canal. No one wants to read a canal. No one puts on their shorts and flip flops, grabs their inner-tube and yells, “Let’s go ride some canal!”
In each chapter or section of your book there needs to be a conflict, an obstacle your heroin/hero needs to overcome. In the first act, the hero/heroin might do well against the obstacles. In the second act, they need to fail. And the third act is where they have learned their lesson, gained wisdom, and finally triumphed over their adversary, or died a glorious death that inspires or educates others.
Unless you are quite experienced in story crafting, this structure does not flow naturally. This is why I recommend some form of story mapping. It is best to do it before composing, but it can be done after a first draft, during self-editing.
A motif is a re-occurring image, theme or element that appears throughout your novel. A dove symbolizes peace, or a snake represents evil, or a spider represents death. Motifs add color and intrigue to your novel, but you have to be tricky, subtle, underhanded in your use of them. After a first draft is a good time to distribute motifs. Spread them out, don’t just leave them at the end and marvel at your brilliance. And for gosh sakes, don’t explain them.
When your character is experiencing emotion, don’t say: She felt grief. Don’t say grief enveloped her. Don’t say she was painted in grief. Say what she is doing in response to the grief. Say what her posture is, what her hands are doing; and if she’s distracted by the grief, don’t say she’s distracted by the grief. Jane set the letter down on the counter, her hands trembling, her breath quick. She adjusted and re-adjusted her wedding band, removing it, sliding it back onto her finger. She picked up the letter again and held it to her breast and wept.
When you tell a story, it’s easy to slip into a mode of communication I call overview. This is when you say what happened, but without most of the story element. Jack liked going to bars to meet women, and sometimes they’d talk to him, but mostly he would go home empty handed. That is overview. I think it’s tempting to write that way because the movies have a form of this called montage, where the passing of time is sped up, someone ages, or a pattern of behavior is revealed, and then time gets back to normal and here we are in the future. But in the movies, you actually see the character doing stuff.
For prose, the best way to reveal important elements of your story is through dialogue, where characters talk to each other. But dialogue also includes revealing blocking. The two or three characters can’t just sit there. They have to do something while they talk. There are subtle ways to reveal their emotions or motivations, like tapping, or pacing, or building or destroying something.
In action scenes, where someone is doing something that moves the plot forward, you typically need dialogue to help explain or support the actions.
And in inner dialogue, the reader gets the intimate thoughts of the Point of View character. Too little of this breaks the flow. Too much bores the reader. This can be a good mode for transitional scenes. Jack drove his Buick away from the bar. He’d struck out again. Maybe he needed to chew on a mint. Or maybe Martha was right. Maybe he should finally call her.
It takes more effort to write scenes directly, and stay with the story in real time. But your story will be much more readable than an overview.
My mother passed away a week ago tomorrow, after a two year fight with pancreatic cancer. She was a feisty one. She’d had a heart attack, three back surgeries, and the cancer, and yet she kept pushing forward.
She was a relentless genealogical researcher, and found family traces back four centuries. She also located her two long lost brothers, whom her birth mother had given up when they were babies. The first passed away (also from cancer) just after she reached him in about 1983. The second she found just recently, before she passed. She never got to meet them.
She loved writing, although she didn’t have much of a formal education. But that didn’t slow her down. She used to write articles for the local newspaper in Oregon City, before they closed. It is now a parking lot.
And she loved to paint and etch.
She wasn’t the greatest mother when my sisters and I were kids. She had a nasty temper and shared it with us often. But when someone close to you passes, you focus on the positives. I’ve wondered for a long time what I would say if I was asked to give her eulogy. For a long time I held on to some of the things about her that made me angry. But now that she’s gone, I realize why we say the nicest things about people when they die.
We want to take the best of who they were with us on our journey, and leave the negatives in history.
I checked out Twitter. Posted some stuff. But I find that everyone there is talking, and few people are listening. Everyone wants to get the word out about what they are doing, and I’m no different. But if we all raise our voices just a little bit more, we sound like a Flock of Seagulls. And I ran so far away.
Twitter is an ocean of voices, but all I hear are the seagulls.