Turn the Page

I have a 12 year old daughter, Cherice, who is a voracious reader. She can go into a library without having any idea what story to pick, and five minutes later she comes out with a book. Once she starts reading the book, she goes on and on about how good it is. I have wondered to myself how this is possible when I can spend an hour in the library reading the vignettes of potential books only to find the book I end up taking home doesn’t hold my interest beyond the first chapter.

So, I decided that I would interview my daughter and find out exactly what it was that she found interesting about a story. Then I thought why not share this information with others so that they may be able to incorporate some of these ideas into their own writing.

We eventually talked about what she liked concerning:

• Storyline
• Characters
• Action

In this blog, I’m going to focus on storyline.

Cherice likes a story line that has an issue come up early in the story, and at the time, the significance of the issue is not clear. Only later does the issue play a significant part in the story. For example, in the book Divergent (Veronica Roth, 2011), early in the story the protagonist admits that there is only one mirror in her house and that she is only allowed to look in the mirror for a few minutes per day. This idea grabbed my daughter’s attention and she was willing to read on and sacrifice her time to find out why this was so. There may be a technical term for this, but for the purpose of this blog entry I’m going to call it “anticipation,” because that’s what it does for my daughter. She begins to wonder how this event will tie into the story later, and, therefore, it keeps her turning the pages.

It’s my opinion that a lot of good stories seem to be written in reverse. This process allows the author to plant items of anticipation early in the story knowing that he/she will resolve them later.

In another example from the book Fablehaven (Brandon Mull, 2006), early in the story a brother and his sister are told by their Grandfather that they cannot go into the woods. Of course my daughter, like so many other readers, had to find out what was in the woods, so it kept her turning the pages.

Cherice is only 12, so the anticipation that keeps her turning the pages of a book might be different for an older or younger reader. Regardless of the age of the reader, he/she has to be given a reason to turn the page. What better reason than to continually raise the reader’s curiosity with good anticipation.

Keep Writing.

Food for Thought: It Starts with a Story

Last month I mentioned that I like to visit a website where I can  listen to people tell stories about their lives.  I watch a lot of programs on PBS and happened to catch a short, ‘filler’ spot attributed to StoryCorps with a note at the end to check out their website to find out more.  I did and have been hooked ever since.  Sometimes I laugh.  Sometimes I cry.  Always I’m amazed at the rich fodder people carry within their memories; stories they could use as raw material for complete memoirs or books of fiction.  The fact is I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone without an interesting story to tell, and that’s where writing starts – with a story.

If I were to ask you to tell me a story about your life, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?  Hold that thought, or better yet, write it down and try to write it exactly as you would tell it to me.  Is it easy?  Do the words flow from your mind to your hand without hesitation?  Or do the gods of grammar and punctuation get in your way making you stop, erase, and rewrite your words till you no longer think your story is any good?

I think the grammar gods get in the way for most people.  Even for those where the words flow freely at first, there comes a time where you have to apply ‘craft’ to your writing.  What is ‘craft’?  It includes grammar and punctuation, of course, but it also includes plot, characterization, setting the scene, narrative, dialog, structure, building suspense, voice, flow – the list goes on and on.  Feel intimidated?  Too scared to share your writing with other people?  I don’t think you have to be afraid.

During my time as a member of the Deadwood Writers Group, I’ve read hundreds of writing submissions by dozens of people.  In all that reading, I’d say each piece had at least 90 percent of the mechanics of craft already in place.  Many had even more of the mechanics down.  So my experience tells me that your writing is probably a lot more interesting and in better shape than your fear of the grammar gods will let you believe.  That’s not to say your piece will be perfect.  If you’re seeking truthful feedback, people will help you find the craft areas that you still need to develop.  You might even have an idea of what those areas are and can ask for help in those specific places.

The point to keep in mind is that people with a love of reading and writing seem to have absorbed a lot of what they were taught in English classes in school.  If you share that enthusiasm, have faith in what you’ve learned and write with the confidence that you have the basics inside of you.  If you have a story to tell, you’ve started and are already more than halfway there.

And Now, The 2050 POE Prize Winner For…

By the middle of this century, the successful fiction novel is going to involve a lot more than just words-on-the-page. Already, graphic novels are becoming animated and eBooks are reading the stories aloud. It won’t be long before Harry Potter flies out of our tablet in a hologram while J. K. Rowling sits on our digital screen and read to us, her universal audience of one.

Actual printed matter — the stuff of ink and paper — in the future novel is going to be strictly cover art and internal illustrations suitable for framing. The Author’s contribution to this piece of art will be a caption of the very essence of the image itself; the words that created it. But, sadly, that’s the only text of the author’s we will read in 2050 ink. “Limited Edition” will lose all meaning, right along with “Remainder Bin.” Soon, “Deluxe Edition” will mean that very same artwork only signed by the author and/or illustrator(s), and also the animator(s), holograph artists and voice artists who will help produce the POE Prize (Pulitzer-Oscar-Emmy) winners in 2050. Print versions, where they exist at all, will be expensive pre-ordered Collector Editions bound in (by then) genuine Corinthian Naugahyde, or they will be biodegradable, print-on-demand paperbacks that, in a pinch, can double as toilet paper.

All of these added features take talents beyond what most of today’s writers possess, or want to possess. But collaboration of such talents will be the keys to the kingdom within a few years.

Why? Because it’s more entertaining! You can get a glimpse of the future now. Anomaly, has an app that produces short, holographic animations that jump off the pages of the printed book. It’s surreal. It’s half way to the future.

Unlike biographers and historians, fiction writers are strictly in the entertainment business. We don’t seek to teach or preach to a known audience, we must create our own. The better we entertain, the bigger the audience. Simple as that. Biographers and historians have no such concerns, but then, they don’t have their readers sitting on the edge of their chair, either.

Funny, if we look back in time we can clearly see our future. One hundred years ago, new fiction writers got their stories serialized in magazines first. Readers had to wait until the next issue for the next installment. The author was tasked with keeping their audience in suspense and caring enough about what happens next to buy the next issue. Both Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs got their start this way, among many others. The complete novel version would come out the following year, or not, depending on magazine sales. Only successful novels were then followed by a movie or play adaptation.

First you’d get a little and like, then you’d get a lot and love it, then you’d get it all in-your-face but sometimes want to spit.

Blogs, tablets, home theater. Same play, different stage. Today, if we want the wider audience to swallow our story and feel satisfied, we have to write to resonate in every format, else what the author sees is not what the wider audience gets.

And that’s the rub. Often, the audio and visual versions of novels do not resonate with those who have already read the book. The author has to take control of his/her works before this point. Inflections can’t be out of place in tomorrow’s digital novel. Liberties can’t be allowed that change what the author intended for so-called creative license. Authors had little care in the matter 100 years ago, when fiction was still in its adolescence. By the time the movie or play adaptation came out, they’d long since moved on, high on their next novel.

Only a handful of authors thought of their works in terms of perpetuity. Edgar Rice Burroughs did. Arthur Conan Doyle did not. Both were hallmark visionaries, yet history tells their personal tales vastly different.

Some of Conan Doyle’s adaptations have been spectacular, like the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes series of several years ago that starred the late Jeremy Brett. Doyle would have been proud of that one. But most other renditions of the world’s first forensics sleuth — and there are many — do Doyle a disservice, or at least the author’s intent, leaving the viewer who hasn’t read the original stories to wonder what all the fuss was about 100 years ago. The original Sherlock Holmes was a bipedal bloodhound, everything Doyle wrote centered on that singular aspect. It was Holmes’ superior intellect and cunning methods of deduction that kept readers clamoring for more. Yet, modern adaptations brush Holmes’s methodical pace, his creative thinking, and sometimes even his flair for the dramatic ending under the carpet. For the last 50 years, contemporary stories have centered on Sherlock’s lack of love life (Irene Adler; The woman in A Scandal in Belgravia), or his fetish with cocaine–legal at the time– in (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution). If you’d only read or watch the newer versions you’d think Holmes was just an insensitive, bi-polar drug addict with sexual hang ups, and Doyle’s estate has been unable to stop any of it.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, on the other hand, controlled all aspects of his writing: creating, publishing, distribution, artwork, and adaptations into other formats, by mid-career. Tarzan hasn’t changed one iota. Burroughs was honored with a U.S. postal stamp to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Tarzan, and the ape-man was still as handsome as he was in 1912. Some adaptations have been laughable, true, but Tarzan has gone agelessly into a second life in the funny papers and on the silver screen, and license was sold by Burroughs and his estate for every one of these versions. His estate enjoys that foresight to this day with Andy Briggs’ “New Adventures” of Tarzan stories, and a new, subscriber-based, weekly online comic strip of the man who had a six pack long before Budweiser.

Will fiction authors have the vision to get collaboration right this time around?

Will the Author — the Creator of the very essence of the story itself — finally get to conduct the orchestra in this land of digital perpetuity? Or just continue to play first violin?

Depends on what tale we tell I suppose, and how well we show it to the widest audience.

April’s Blog: Show Don’t Tell. It’s the first rule any new novelist learns, but it means more than just opening up the reader’s eyes. Next month, we’ll look at how writing to the reader’s other senses can often paint a more vivid picture than the eyes can see, and how that raises the temperature of today’s suspense novels.

A Voice From Long Ago

Last month I wrote about how hard it is for me to find things to write about. Ever since then, everywhere I go, there’s a little voice saying, “Maybe you’ll find something to write about here.”

Earlier this month, when I was in California, I hit the jackpot. I read some letters that were found in my Dad’s office desk after he died. The letters were from his Dad. They sounded so full of life, like they’d been written just yesterday or last week. They were dated 1927. My Dad was 22. He was a senior at the University of Santa Clara. That was a long time ago.

I never met his Dad, my Grandfather. He’d had a stroke in 1933 and died later that same day. But, here he was, alive, charismatic and vibrant, speaking to me from the past. “Wow”, I thought, “Maybe I can get to know him after all”. I was thrilled and knew I just had to write about this experience.

Then I got cold feet. Normally I’m a pretty private person. I felt a little nervous and scared about the idea. But, then I decided why not?  So here’s my story:

Have you ever wondered what your grandparents or great-grandparents, that you never met because they died so long ago, were like? What they cared about? What made them smile? What traits you may have inherited from them?

As I read my Grandfather’s letters, I felt like he was in the room with me, having a drink and chatting. Hearing his voice speak across time, was very special and a little strange.

I knew he’d left Ireland in 1880 because he’d called a strike against the parish priest for breaking the contract regarding the ratio of journeymen to apprentices. He won but no one would hire him after that.

He was a carpenter and he went first to Chicago because he had a sister in a convent there. Then he went out to San Francisco where he founded the Carpenters’ Union, the Building Trades Council and later became mayor.

When I heard the family stories about him, I wondered, what kind of man was he? I knew his wife, my Grandmother. We called her Nana and she was kind of cold. Was he like that too?

Was I surprised! The letters from him to my Dad were warm and caring. He did not seem to follow the conventional wisdom that “Children should be seen and not heard”. He made it clear in many ways that his relationship with his oldest son and other children was very important to hm.

There were letters to my Dad when he was at the University of Santa Clara and trying to get into Harvard. There were letters to my Dad when he was back east in Law School. My Grandfather wrote about what the “family in the west”, as he called them, was doing, things like my Aunt Eileen’s 21st birthday and a planned vacation to Australia. He also told my Dad how much he missed him and looked forward to the next time they’d be together.

I felt a little strange reading these letters. It was almost as if I was spying through time on the two of them, sort of like a kid who sneaks into the living room, hiding behind the drapes so she can hear what the adults are saying. But it was also neat to hear my Grandfather talk in his own voice.

Afterwards, my Grandfather became real to me, not just a character from family stories, and it let me see my father in a different light. Instead of seeing him as the larger than life personality he became, I got a chance to see him as the son he once was.

It was also interesting to see the letters themselves. They were all typed on a manual typewriter and the pages, I guess there were no paper clips in those days, were pinned together with a straight pin, the kind you’d use to shorten a hem today.

I know I would have really liked my Grandfather if we’d had the chance to meet. I could feel his personality and spirit coming through the letters. By the end, I felt I was really getting to know him.

I was also struck by the fact that, of all the many letters my father had received over his lifetime, it was these letters that he chose to keep. I wanted to ask, of all the letters, why did you save these? But I’m glad he did.

A Cracker Jack prize: story ideas

Story ideas do not come in a box of Cracker Jack…or can they?

When I was a kid, the box of molasses-flavored popcorn-nut mix contained cool toys.  It was a delight to pull out some plastic blue ring, too small for any human hand, and squeeze it halfway onto my pinkie finger and imagine it was…anything.  It was a secret decoder ring, and only I had the clues to save the world from the alien spaceship about to destroy humans.  Or the ring gave me super powers, and I would defeat villains by zapping them with my ring from atop flying horses.  I was boundless.

These days, the prizes are downright boring and cheesy if you ask me, but you can still take those cartoon baseball stickers or temporary dragon tattoos and write with abandon.  How?  Good question.

The all-powerful “They” say to choose a situation, emotion or object and launch from there.  Stories come from within so just start writing.  Yeah, that’s easier said than done.

Finding that starting point can be challenging.  I dislike catchphrase advice because without specific examples, I don’t know how to apply those general tips to my writing.  Two tips that annoy me are the seemingly useless “look around you” or “write what you know” how-to suggestions.  Those phrases are cliché until I learned how to make those work specifically for me.

There really is something to the generic advice to “look around you” for ideas.  Consider this: It’s Chinese takeout night, and when you get to dessert, you remember the classic fortune cookie joke-fortune, “Help! I’m a prisoner in a Chinese fortune cookie factory.”  That sentence alone opens countless opportunities.  If you write romance, imagine the hero sweeping in and rescuing the trapped maiden only to be chased by her vengeful lover who locked her away in the factory in the first place.  For the science fiction fans, is the prisoner actually an alien waiting to capture humans?  If you’re geared towards mysteries or thrillers, what does the hero encounter as he or she enters the factory only to discover that the true purpose of the factory is…?

Expand from that plot sentence and “write what you know” to develop characters.  What charming habits do you have that your alien can have to humanize it?  What annoying phrases does your aunt say that could provide tension between the hero and your damsel in distress?  Does your friend have a nervous tic that could distinguish your sleuth?  Could your spouse’s nickname be the name of a Young Adult character?  If your character’s favorite food is Cracker Jack, the same as yours, does this vice affect the story’s outcome?

Suddenly, writing is fun again.

If you feel that your life has not been exciting to this point, then start now.  Take advantage of where you are right now.  “Look around you” and study people at the mall, the dog park, the grocery store or wherever you hang out.  Imagine their stories.  As a wanna-be coffee shop hipster, I hear random snippets of conversation that are fascinating story fodder.  Always carry a journal, napkin or phone notepad to record these moments.  If you tell yourself “Oh, I’ll remember that later,” you probably won’t, at least not with the same flavor you had at that moment.

This personal exploration of people and their traits feels natural for a creative non-fiction writer like me.  I discovered that I can “write what I know” and tell my life story three different ways from three different perspectives: my relationship with my dad; my interactions with my mother; and episodes told from an outsider’s point of view.  Talk about maximizing your material.

I found more “write what you know” opportunities when a few months ago, I rediscovered folders full of high school and college essays, stories and poetry.  I flipped through them and wondered, how did I ever earn a passing grade on that?  What the *bleep* was I thinking when I wrote this crap?  Shudder.  However, reading these embarrassing scraps of paper more closely, I actually found some moments of brilliance and passages I can salvage.  Really, I was that creative?  Really, I was that creative.

If you don’t have past material to repurpose, it is not cheating to borrow inspiration from tools designed to spur imagination.  A quick search of “story ideas” yielded numerous phone apps: Lists for Writers; Storyteller; The Brainstormer; Story Seed Generator; Story Starters; and Flash Fiction Prompter.

I have not used any of those products, but I did stumble upon the interactive game Story Cubes, which are themed picture dice sets.  Rolling all dice in the Actions set generated an intriguing random assortment.

My Story Cubes inspiration


From this, my character Jimmy the Burglar was born, including the first line of his story:  “Jimmy the Burglar could barely pick his nose let alone a lock.”

Is that a story you would read?

This came from the roll of the dice instead of a Cracker Jack box, but still….  Just think of what you can come up with when you look around and write what you know.