Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

I’m off on a tangent again running around on a Saturday because I promised my daughter a new phone, I promised myself I’d get a bunch of gifts for my youth group and they’d all be personalized because…well they are really great kids and I want to make tomorrow’s Christmas party– special.

So off to the store I go and of course the machine is down at the phone store and I run around trying to find a different store with a deal equal or better than the original one I was getting after which, I get caught in the parade traffic on the way to the plaza to pick up those individualized gifts. Now I am spent both mentally and physically and I just want to go home and settle down with a nice big piece of German chocolate cake. But I can’t. I still have a lot of shopping to do.

This has often been my Saturday, but after feeling run down too often by the time Monday morning rolls around I’ve learned to cross things off of my list of to-do and focus on the moral of the story—the point of it all.

Watch the subplots

Too often we add too much drama, run in too many directions with more subplots and story twists than I even want to remember. Often the main story gets buried.

I suppose the first questions are this: do you know what the main story is? Is the story relevant or interesting enough to carry itself? Often times we add to the story because we don’t have confidence that the story as it is will hold up. This does not mean that subplots or even parallel plots will not enhance the story, it simply means that the story is solid and that anything else will only add to the depth of the original and not take over.  If you find that you have a takeover element you may want to consider what is most important—the main story or one of the others—you may be surprised.

Complicated vs. Simple

Buying personalized gifts did not mean in depth conversations with parents or running to every mall in the mid-state to find the perfect gift—it mean simply that I thought about each child—that was the focus, that was the main thing. And for sanity and time sakes, most of them got gift cards. They were very pleased because someone was thinking of them.

Writing Fiction: Make the Payoff Worth the Wait

Writing Fiction: Make the Payoff Worth the Wait

Growing up, my mother had a habit of getting the biggest kick out of a funny story halfway through sharing it.  With tears streaming down her face and completely breathless she’d try to finish it, but simply couldn’t—it was just that funny. We’d all wait patiently because everyone wanted to be a part of a good, rolling-on-the-floor-can’t-catch-my-breath kind of story. We got the first part and surly the ending would have us in the same state as she. And finally she’d pull he self together long enough to finish it. There it was. We’d waited for her to get to the rolling-on-the-floor-can’t-catch-my-breath part. But something was wrong. We weren’t laughing. What should have been the funniest part wasn’t all that funny. The pay-off, the moment we’d waited for was…not worth the wait.

And then again, perhaps it was the build-up. Perhaps that had been too much because often the stories were at the least mildly amusing. If she’d simply chuckled or giggled or smiled broadly we probably would have enjoyed the fact that it was kind of funny. But as a kid, it felt like a setup as if she’d led us to believe, by her gut-wrenching laughter that the story had more meat than it actually did.

And it happens often in fiction writing and movies. How many times have we read a story or watched a movie and the stakes were so high for the protagonist until we were sitting with fists clenched and eyes widened wondering what would happen next? How in the heck was she going to get out of this? And that’s a good thing. It is the hope of all of us that we will engage at such a high level the reader or viewer will forget that these are fictional characters and that their suspension of disbelief will be at its height. But it’s a serious thing to take a reader to the top of a cliff and then…then…the ascension is only a two-foot drop. When a reader trusts us with his time, energy and efforts it is important to engage until the end and make the payoff worth it.

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One approach I have tried to use is to visualize the end of a conflict—exactly how does this turn out? And then I work backward, building from that pivotal moment. This is something you can do with each conflict all the way through the major one near the end.

The first time I saw The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith, I remember halfway through thinking, “Will this guy ever catch a break?” It seemed that scene after scene was nothing but pure struggle and heartache. But at the end when his Gardner gets the intern stockbroker position out of a plethora of applicants you rejoice with him and feel pure elation. This position, this payoff was worth it the wait. This job will take him places he’d only dreamed about. It was difficult to obtain and highly unlikely. And now standing there at the top possessing a position coveted by so many is a payoff worth the wait for him–and for us.

It the payoff isn’t sufficient perhaps you will need to rethink whether the story is worth telling—at this point. Maybe, just maybe a bigger payoff is lurking around the corner.

 

Fiction Writing: Getting Rid of the Clutter

Fiction Writing: Getting Rid of the Clutter

I was talking with a co-worker the other day and she confided that she is at a cross-point in her life. Her work, although she doesn’t mind it, is not fulfilling. For some time now she occasionally gets that ache in the pit of her stomach indicating that it is time for a change. But of course there is life and all that it comprises—a daughter, a demanding job, a mortgage, friends and their bevy of problems and the moving parts that come with all of it. She said to me she wants to get away—really get away from it all in order to get some perspective and find out what direction to take with her life. She plans to rent her house out to her daughter, pay someone to maintain her place and then sneak away to a remote beach to rest, relax and silence the noise for about a year or so. Sounds awesome and kudos to her and others who possess such a privilege. But most of us must resort to a more practical means of regrouping. It’s not always a matter of physically getting away from it all, but getting the unnecessary elements away from us—the junk mail, the spam, the stuff that doesn’t add value to our lives but simply takes up space.  A matter of getting rid of burdens we have no business carrying. There’s nothing more unsettling than being boggled down with someone else’s load.   illustration_0710_clutter Getting rid of the clutter, can be a challenge. It’s hard to say goodbye to those things, people or elements that have been in our space for as far back as we can remember. It takes discipline, a motivation to change and a lot of prayer. Cutting away at coarse, complex, long forming vines of clutter that have snaked their way into our lives can be painful, after all they have become—somewhere in our journey—a part of us, however toxic they may be. Fiction writing comes with the same issues. Someone asks us what our story is about and we began to describe in painful detail, the entire plot and all of its intertwined subplots while our listener nods hoping we will eventually get to the point, or, even a point. And suddenly we realize we aren’t even sure. Move with Focus A good story can’t be rushed. It doesn’t magically appear in perfect form. Although readers really want to get to the point, they want to enjoy the journey. I just finished reading The Girl on the Train, a thriller by Paula Hawkins. The author takes time to describe the protagonist to emerge us into her world, her way of thinking, her personal struggles—which of course eventually connects us to her external dilemma. Her life was simple–a simple disaster. But the story moved forward with slow, deliberate steps. The subplots were intertwined but did not upstage the main plot. The focus was clearly on the protagonist, Rachel. The subplots were properly introduced, but you always knew who the story was really about. That is often the problem with focus—remembering who and what the story is really about. Subplots may be juicy and exciting but if they overwhelm the plot instead of enhancing it, it is too much. If the minor characters are more detailed or interesting than your main character they have to be eliminated or toned down. Believe in the Story Often times along the way we begin to believe that our story isn’t enough. We began to add stuff to make it juicer and more interesting, desperate to hold our readers’ attention. But the truth is a good story stands alone—if indeed it is a good story. Sometimes it’s a matter of having faith in our writing—our ability to write the story and write it well. If you don’t believe in the story, or your ability to tell the story, your reader will know. Write with the confidence that this story must be told this way. Let’s face it, you can take a moment in time, an event a person and derive many different stories, from the same instance or about the same person. But when you write, you will do it your way, from your perspective. It is, after all, what makes it uniquely you. It is why you are the author and no one else. If you began to doubt the ability to do so it could be from a couple of reasons: 1) You lack confidence in your writing skills at this point; 2) The story doesn’t possess enough meaning for you. If one of these reasons are applicable then your problem is foundational and must be dealt with before continuing on. Remove everything that isn’t the story Once you are moving with confidence get rid of everything that does not impact the outcome. If you began to describe the town or city in which your protagonist lives, make sure it is relevant to the story, i.e., the mundane of the city counters the excitement that stirs within her or him, or parallels the mundane feeling within. Or, the busyness of the city helps her to hide out, disappear inside of her pain, she has become irrelevant to the world around her. On the other hand, your reader probably doesn’t need a detailed description of her looks unless they are important to how she feels about herself or how others perceive her. The reader will grow tired of a detailed description of the look of each character if it does not add value. Write Often I’ve found out the more often you write the easier it is to get to the point. For some reason prolonging the story prompts you to add more moving parts. It gives you time to think of bright ideas and interesting twists and turns that confuses and complicates. Write on through. Write often, leaving the clutter behind.

Writing Your Truth

I was recently watching a television show about how to tell when someone is telling a lie. Somewhere during the hour the host stated that most people lie about themselves or exaggerate the truth when talking with others. He even went on to say that many people lie to themselves about themselves.

I believe lying is actually a form of self-preservation. Lying is a way to protect ourselves from shame, guilt or harm. We say that we’re O.K., because the truth may be that we are falling apart and that is too much to bear. We convince ourselves that he is not cheating, the alternative being we will lose him; and we can’t phantom such a thing.

To be open and honest about who we really are, our motives for doing things—even the good things that we do–may put us in a light that is unfavorable or even downright painful.  The truth can be uncomfortable but it can also be liberating and beautiful because falsity and all of the upkeep that comes with it can be exhausting and depressing and we will eventually find ourselves living an unfulfilled life.

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Writing demands the same level of authenticity as life does. You will connect with your reader when you can bare the souls of your character. The thing about reading well- written fiction is that if you indeed see your truth within the characters of a book that revelation is personal—it is powerful, unnerving and wonderful. It is the reason readers are drawn to such writers as Amy Tan and Terry Mcmillan. That connection helps us to know that we are not alone and that our experiences are not isolated. And even though you are reading fictional characters you are still reading the soul of a real, live, being—the writer.

The more authentic you are in your writing, the more you will draw in the reader. Suddenly, he or she forgets that it is fiction because it feels more like he or she is peeking into the personal, private world of someone else’s life.  Authentic writing means you do away with stereotypes, and go deeper than superficial motives. For example, our way of thinking, the spouse we choose, the way we raise our children are not haphazard actions done on a whim. They are in many ways subconscious decisions based on the way we’ve been raised, our life experiences, beliefs, fears and expectations. Strive to reveal these attributes when you write. You will find your writing is more robust, exciting and that your characters come alive.

How to pace your story

No one has ever accused me of being too patient or of moving too slow on a decision. By my very nature I like short, sweet explanations and components that actually move.

My mother was the opposite. She lingered at the grocery store, took time to speak to everyone at church. She ate slowly, methodically and never allowed anyone to put her into a hurried state. As a teen I would ask permission to attend a basketball game or show and she always had to think about it. Think about it? Really? To say that we bumped heads is to put it mildly. Perhaps my biggest frustration was that she did not make my hurriedness her problem. Her pace was proper for her lifestyle and suited every decision she made. It would take me years to appreciate this virtue. And indeed it is a virtue that can be priceless when writing fiction.

When I first began to write fiction I felt compelled to get it all out there at once. I was concerned that my reader would get bored with the story if I took too long to get there. I was fearful that if they didn’t have enough story within the first few chapters they would yawn, close my book, promise to get back to it later, but would never do so.

 

Now, there was some validity to my concern. But my problem (which I now realize) was that I did not know the difference between dragging a story and creating suspense. Suspense by the very meaning of the word is to leave the reader in a state of uncertainty and our curious nature compels us to seek answers. And when it comes to fiction, the only way to get those answers is to continue reading. My problem was how to get them to continue on with the book and not give away all to goods only to be bored later. Here is what I found:

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Make the reader care about your character

 

Let’s face it—if the reader doesn’t care about the characters it won’t matter what they do. They could get hit by a bus and the reader couldn’t be less interested. But we care about things, people for one of the following reasons:

 

  • Wethink that we know them; it’s why you peek through the blinds when the cops show up at your neighbor’s house
  • We have some connection with them; friends and associates with whom we share the same interest
  • They are interesting; they may be over the top beautiful, smart or gifted. They may be completely narcissist or evil or high strung or funny.
  • They have something we wish we had

So I had to take time to develop my characters to make them compelling, interesting, keeping in mind the reasons above. I had to make the reader feel that there would be payoff if they just continued to read.

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Create foreboding

Movies create foreboding all the time—that feeling that something is about to happen. They do so with music—when all know the something-bad-is-going-to-happen chords. They do so with lighting and close-ups. In writing we do it a number of ways. And here are a few:

  • Build a semblance of peace or tranquility and because it is a story we realize it is a set-up for something to disrupt this perfect peace.
  • Write short sentences to create a sense of urgency.
  • Use questions. She knew she’d closed the door and locked it—or had she?

Honestly we love foreboding even if we don’t admit it—but that is only if the payoff is worth it. Build them up, up up and then let ‘em have it.

Keep the story moving

There is nothing more grating than reading a long, lofty description that seems to go…well…nowhere. Descriptions are great when they are essential and become a true element of the story. Keeping the story moving becomes easier when we keep the point of the story in mind; when we constantly remember that there is a place that we are headed. If we get stuck in a place or scene then our reader is stuck too.

Save the best for last

Even as the story is moving remember that the reader wants a payoff. We all love a surprise element as we near the end. As readers, by the time we get to the last portion of the book we think we have it figured out. It is nice to get that twist, that final OMG. If it is crafted correctly, in other words, fits into the story line it works well as an excellent last ping.

To make sure your story is paced properly I believe that beta readers are invaluable. And what are the words you want to hear? I simply could not put it down.