In The Writer November 2011 edition, Carolyn Roy-Bornstein tells us “I am a writer. Choosing to view the world in scenes. Seeing all of humanity as a cast of potential characters.” She goes on to inform us that she prospects conversations for subtext, keeps her ear to the regional ground, and remains alert for local flavors of dialogue. That, she says, is her gift to her students. She explains that it is a unique view of the world that all writers share.
A few weeks ago I was out at a charming little italian restaurant that was overflowing with customers waiting at the bar and standing in the lobby area waiting for tables to clear. Despite the thirty minute wait that was frustrating the other patrons, I took advantage of the opportunity to observe the way people dressed, the things they said to one another in conversation, and even the make- up of the clusters of people who had gathered there together. Young business men in suits sitting with middle-aged women dressed professionally in Nanette Lapore suits. An elderly grey-haired man who used a cane to get around laughing along side a young man dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans. Could they be father and son, I wondered. Was the group in business suits there after a long hard day at work- did they all work for the same company? I moved my seat over just a bit so I could listen more closely to the content of their discussions. Somewhere in there, in the middle of all of that chit- chat and bantor, there was a story and as a writer, I was determined to dig deep and find it.
If I was not a writer I doubt I would have paid much attention to the animated chatter around me and instead, I probably would have been like the rest of the people waiting- watching the clock tick as they waited inpatiently for a table to clear.
Being a writer has a way of bringing the world into focus in a positive way, turning every day life into intervals of lessons that dazzle us as they teach. And all of humanity, as Ms. Roy-Bornstein pointed out, becomes potential characters who entertain us, amuze us, teach us and inspire us. Perhaps there is something in their mannerisms, attitude or in their conversations that could lead to a story or add to a story already in process.
And so, next time you are sitting in a restaurant or standing in line at the store, keep in mind that the person next to you (possibly with the notebook and pen in her hand!) may just be silently interviewing you for a part in her next tale or spying on you as you reprimand your children (and possibly your spouse!) or as you talk on your cell -so you might want to put on a good show while you’re there.
Have you ever watched someone destroy his life or the lives of others while judging him according to your own standards? Or perhaps you would not say you “judged” him but you know YOU would NEVER have handled the situation(s) the way he did. On the other hand, could you ever imagine standing by as someone you admire destroys himself and there is nothing you can do about it but tell his story later. In F.Scott Fitzgerald’s GREAT GATSBY (one of my all time favorites), we saw Nick Carroway almost “fall in love” with his neighbor Jay Gatsby, only to witness Gatsby’s life fall apart like a poorly constructed art project. Nick tells readers early in the story that Gatsby had “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No- Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”
In making a surviving apostle the narrator of your tale, the writer has the power to give the characters inner yearnings that they don’t understand and can not deal with cognitively, but told from someone else’s point of view- someone who is directly involved in those characters’ lives. The reader rides along with the narrator but not just as someone looking inside the window,from outside, but as someone right in the middle of the story. The reader, with the narrator, feels what the narrator feels or at least asks the same questions- questions the reader thinks he has already learned. Does the reader REALLY know pain and pleasure and if so, can something be both or neither? Rejecting the common wisdom he thinks he had, the reader will look for answers himself as he follows the narrater through the weaknesses and delusions that have bound people together on the surface while tearing them apart inside. Afterall, aren’t the most painful wounds we have inflicted or had inflicted upon us been the invisible ones- such as betrayal, neglect, abandonment, selfishness.
What better way for the writer to show her readers this than to draw them directly into the story to the house next door where they can see first-hand those betrayals and mistakes taking place as they destroy someone we may judge, dislike or like Nick Carroway, actually admire.
Characters in our stories, just as people in our lives, may embody two or more irreconcilable traits that are completely opposite of one another and even to the extreme. In fact, when this is the case, it creates tension,drama and conflict weaving together that magical draw that keeps a reader hooked, anxious to turn the next page even when it is long past her bed time. Although in real life we may discourage this tension and drama in our lives despite the tendency some people have to create it (oh come on- we all know those drama queen types and certainly, you and I have “never” done it ourselves right?), in the lives of the characters we read about it is a requirement.
Eric M. Witchey, in his article in the October 2011 edition of The Writer magazine, tell us ” if we link a character’s irreconcilable self to a story’s overall theme, we can grab and hold our readers until the character is released from his tormant”. He further warns us that any piece of narrative,setting, conflict, dialogue, scene, sequence or act that doesn’t relate to and impact the irreconciable self and theme does not belong in the story”.
Think of a character who hates and loves at the same time. Perhaps he loves his catholic father yet hates the way his father treats his jewish friends and over time he has come to hate his judgmental father while loving him at the same time. Perhaps his friends are no longer welcome in his father’s house- the home the character resides in with his family. One can imagine the tension and conflict and subsequent drama that develops from that extreme combination of feelings (irreconciable self) in that character. The story’s theme could be accepting people for who they are which works against that scenario, therefore; creating the necessary emotional tug of war that is necessary for keeping the reader engaged. Surely, this conflict of love and hate and the weakness of mankind’s habit to judge is the making of a good story.
One can only hope our own “drama queen” family and friends resolve their own conflicts as effectively as the characters in our stories have!
Some of us in life like to start off our day by creating a “to do” list containing everything from checking emails first thing in the morning to fitting in biceps and triceps at the gym, to picking up groceries on our way home and then,conversely, there are others of us who prefer to just “wing it” and see where the day takes us.
I have to commend anyone who makes it through their day without the “to do” list and still manages to accomplish everything they were supposed to do by the day’s end because I know, as a type A personality, I would be the one who finally falls into bed at the end of the day only to suddenly remember I left my youngest son waiting for me at football practice where I was supposed to pick him up an hour ago!
Writers tend to either be the type to create outlines before beginning their novel or they’re the type to just “fly by the seat of their pants” and hope by the time they reach the end of the story they remained faithful to their characters and plot while managing to thread the theme all the way through. Because if they failed to do that, chances are they may fall in to bed at the end of the day and suddenly realize they left the protagonist hanging somewhere still waiting to be picked up!
As James Scott Bell said in his January 2013 Writer’s Digest article, “Even good stories can crumble if they don’t have strong framework”. At some point, writers will likely need to structure what they have written even if they chose not to outline first. Otherwise, they increase the risk of their story falling apart like a tall building in the process of being built with no foundation or scaffolding to hold it up.
Just as a “to do” list helps me to prepare for my day and keeps me focused and on track, making sure that my son gets home safely at an appropriate time before I retire for bed, the outline assures the writer that he gets his characters home- to the end of the story in an appropriate way.
To outline or to fly by the seat of the pants- that is the question… and only the writer can decide which works best!
When I get up in the morning I do not think about the 30 minute run I have ahead of me because if I did-if I really thought about it- I would never do it. I would focus on the long route ahead, the cold, the exhaustion it would bring on, the time it would take up and just the general difficulty of the task itself!
This is the same with writing. Taking on a new writing project means finding time and self discipline, fighting the temptation to give up when it starts to feel like you are spinning your tires and going no where or even worse- going backwards and above all it means promising yourself to persevere and NEVER give up! No matter how long the road seems to be or how exhausted you, the writer, feel – you force yourelf to push forward- taking one more step at a time , or if you’re a runner like I am one more leap!
I once read the following advice ( my apology to the author as I do not recall her or his name at the moment) : Like driving a car at night with headlights as the only way to see the road directly in front of the driver , there is no way to see the destination ahead or even just beyond the first few feet in front of him yet the driver keeps going, moving forward until finally he reaches his destination! His faith and determination give him the motivation he needs to enable him to stay on course despite the obstacles he faces.
As a writer, I know I must write a piece at a time with faith in myself and my passion along with the determination and hard work that I know it takes – without over- thinking it and then one day I will reach the finish line, maybe cold and exhausted, but I will gain the reward of success in the end! And that, my fellow writers, is worth getting up and running for!
As I sit here on this near zero degree day in New Jersey- tapping on the keys of my laptop -to my very first blog on this new Writing Queen site, I feel the excitement rush through me with thoughts of what I should write. Where do I start my journey, I wonder. Do I begin with “Once upon a time… ” or do I start with ” When I was a little girl” or how about ” One day, many years ago…”.
I suppose I could just start with a dream… If I wish upon a star or blow out the candles, or even throw a penny in a fountain and I release a dream that I have always had, dormant and buried, since probably about eight years old,-to write… then my journey will have begun and I will already be on my way to making that dream come true. I would think that giving life to that dream would be a perfect first step..
Each subsequent blog will reflect something I am writing, or reading, or reading about writing and will in itself be my journey and perhaps as I go along, other writers and readers will accompany me – even sharing a piece of advice or comments along the way. So here we go…
Here is my first piece of advice that I have just read : Drama is the sum of desire and danger. The greater the desire , the greater the possibility for drama. To make it work the writer must incorporate danger to the mix. Your characters must struggle to get what they want, and you must make sure they are put at risk (life, happiness, health, etc)
And so, we have taken our first step. Only tomorrow, or the next blog, will show us where we will go next.