Well, I Did Start in the Middle of the Story


Late evening at migration time

Whine: There I was, thinking I was so clever about writing an opening  paragraph that will grab my reader’s attention… and yes, it’s a good paragraph. It does grab your attention. But it starts in the middle of the story, and I never did explore the source of the story itself, and why that man in a black uniform is sitting in a cheap bar on Tu Do Street in Saigon in 1968, getting crocked on vodka.

This is many, many moons and some long, long time – not just many moons, but many solar cycles – after i wrote that opening paragraph and I am now much further into this story, finding that if I don’t’ establish what sent that man in black to that bar, then some day, I will have to write what is commonly known as the back story – a lame version of the word ‘history’ – and that is SO wrong. Do it N.O.W.

Hollywood the Industry does the “back story”, which used to be properly titled the “Prologue”, constantly now, mostly because the studios are looking at the cash in the cash drawer and don’t want to stop milking Bossie the Olde Cash Cow. That’s what the entire business is about. And no, the studio executives do not care about anything that does not have a track record of bringing home the bacon. The publishing industry is almost that bad, also, but more likely to take you on even if you can’t show a sales record if you have a new idea.

That’s the real world, whether we like it or not. Sorry about that, but the truth is better learned ahead of time.

The first premise in writing fiction is to get your reader’s attention, hence the need for a good attention-grabbing opening paragraph. Everything else should flow from there. But this is fiction, story-telling, not non-fiction relating real history to the reader.

However – listen up! You are writing a history, because that is exactly what story telling is all about. Long or brief, covering thousands of years or a short week of constant rain, it is a history of some kind, even if it is invented.

Therefore (ergo – Latin for therefore), you (and I) owe it to the readers to ask ourselves “Well, where does this story start?”

So, yes, I did spend the time on the real beginning of the story about the Man In a Black Uniform in a cheap bar on Tu Do Street in Saigon, Vietnam, on the eve of the Tet Offensive. Why? Because he and his Enemy leave a trail everywhere they go and his life’s goal is to destroy the BadGuys because they destroy everything that he cares about.

How does he reach his goal? Well, it’s rather like being on a Mobius strip – you may end up right back where you started, but time has passed and you’ve changed. Do I really want to do it that way? I don’t know. You really can’t go home again, because everything has changed. Maybe it’s better to get off that endless cycle and sit for a spell or head in a new direction.

Back to the (gag!) outlining, planning, asking where does this go, does it really matter, how much do I dig into this, etc., etc., etc., and now I realize that the threshold between just a short novel-length story and an Epic Tale of Random Acts of Kindness and Revenge is going to take a long time to complete, but – well, what the heck! I got myself into this mess, and I will wade myself out of it.

And that is the whole point to telling a story. You want to tell a story, and entertain an audience of some kind. Your people have lives, histories, happy tails, births, deaths, losses, families, no families, problems, bad jokes, issues – you name it, they’ve got it.

Shoulder the burden, roll that stone up the Hill of Despair and keep it from tumbling onto the village below. Wade through the Slough of Despond, and emerge at the end into a far green valley with the sun rising in the east.

 

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Storytelling


Morning on the heath

What’s the point of story telling?

Is it to lure someone into a long, drawn-out tale of action, adventure, and derring-do?

Is it simply following someone through what seems to be an ordinary day, but something is missing, something that will make life better?

Is it finding clues to a mystery and piecing them together until you find out who did what to whom and how?

Does it have to be short, or can you spread it across seven complete novels?

Should you split it into several sequential stories that build on one another until you come to the end?

It’s your idea.  What do you want to do with it? Where does it go?

The reason for telling a story is, first and foremost, to entertain your reader. That has always been how it works. Entertain the person who is going to read this, your creation. Second, it’s your story, which  means that even if you write for an audience, you should know the people and circumstances involved in it well enough to not let other people tell you what to do or which way the wind blows in it.

Third, the length is less important than the execution of the narrative. However, if you set something aside, so as to focus on other things, and then come back to it later, you can ask yourself if it’s too long or too short, too overdone, does or does not get to the point, or wanders off in a direction it was not supposed to take.

Since the entire point to telling a story that will entertain people is to present a problem for the main character(s) to solve, that’s your first consideration. All those other things are meant to help your character(s) solve the problem.

If the problem is solved by the end of page #2, it’s a shortie. If it’s not solved until Volume 7The Flight to the UpUpDown Phlogiston, then it’s a series of stories. And truly, a series really does not have an end unless the main character(s) dies. And if your tall tale involves reincarnation and past lies, then you have that to deal with, also.

What you can do is write the ending first. Yes, do just that. Write the ending first, in as few or as many sentences as needed, and then start at the beginning by deciding how to get to that ending.

So you do just that, get the entire story written and realize that it no longer fits the ending that you had put together.

Oh, dearie, dearie me, whatever will you do?

Well, isn’t it obvious? Write a new ending, of course!

 

And It is Officially Autumn….


Early morning takeoff from Almond Marsh to join southbound flights on the flyway

It is that time of year. Nights get chillier. You leave the windows open just a crack to let in light and heat from the sun, but at night, you want to snuggle under the blankets and get that bit of warmth you lost in the bathroom on the cold tile floor. It doesn’t matter how many bath rugs you put on the floor, somehow, the cold still seeps into your feet and you wish summer’s heat would stay just one more week… but it leaves at night, and in the mornings, it takes off like the geese and heads south, away from your cold feet, while the geese and ducks head south and slightly west or east toward the flyway, depending on where you are.

Geese coming in for overnight at a local marsh

If there is anything that sticks with you more than the sounds of geese honking 1200 feet up in the sky on a clear, chilly autumn morning, someone tell me what it is. When they get within striking distance of the flyways – and there are several – the flights of geese and ducks become enormous flocks.

Why? Self-preservation, that’s all. A huge mass of flapping wings and honking birds moving south isn’t going to stop a hunter from getting a couple for the dinner table, but it drastically enhances the odds of survival for all those migrating birds to move in huge masses like that.

In Africa, there is one species of swallows that flocks in numbers so massive, they create their own thundering noise and high wind as they pass. They look like a river, almost a single organism, just as starlings look like a single moving organism when they engage in a murmuration – a unified movement that looks like a single organism at a distance.

Fish do this, too. They get into huge masses, all moving in unison and all done as a means of getting out of the way of predator fish like sharks and tarpons.  Mayflies and other insects do the same thing. They appear to be a single mass, almost a cloud, moving in unison while they look for mates.

Now, if you have these separate genuses (birds, insects, and fish) that do the same thing, two in the air and another in the ocean, as a means of self-protection, doesn’t it seem as though that instinct to move as a mass is as old as life itself? And if you build a world for a story, would it be possible or even likely that you might see the same thing in that other world?  Is that a universal instinct, or something peculiar to our little blue planet?

Go take a walk on a sunny autumn day. Get out early if you can, and find a place where you can see the migrating birds. Watch them closely, to see how they are spaced and how often the leaders change places.

And listen to their voices. It will stick with you for a very long time.

 

…and More Awareness


 

I’m continuing with my previous post “Awareness”, as it is especially important to telling stories and/or creating poetry.

Details matter in a story. It is not necessary to run the details ragged, or roll them into a tight little ball and bounce them off the wall. They should be consistent within the context of your tale of derring-do or epic poem, or even just the lyrics to a song that won’t leave you alone when you’re trying to sleep.

If you look at the photo that accompanies this article, you can see the waxing moon trying to shine through layers of ice in the atmosphere, cirrus clouds, and late evening haze. It was winter. It was late in the day and bitterly cold. And I could not resist that shot, because in the lower right hand corner, you can just make out Venus and Jupiter triangulating the Moon as the sun sets.

The fictional character most widely-known for his acumen and awareness was Sherlock Holmes. After him came Agatha Christie;s Miss Marple. We are fortunate that neither author told us exactly how Holmes could figure out the answers to a crime, or how Miss Marple just knew who did what, but the answers to that are there in the stories wrapped around these characters.

Awareness will often keep you alive. At the bus stop, for instance, is that large fellow in a rather dingy jacket just going to work or is he somehow a threat? What if he’s neither? What if he’s just coming home from work at this hour of the morning? Is he carrying a brief case or a steel lunchbox?  Is he maybe a werewolf on his way to work after a night out prowling the neighborhoods?

Excruciatingly written details can bog down a story, or inflate it to a reality that may have been otherwise missing from it. The jacket wasn’t just red; it was an odd shade of crimson, just bordering on a cold red that matched the red in the suspect’s tie.

If you know how something functions, you can use the functionality that you know about to move the story a little further into the reader’s mind and get it to stick there. It isn’t necessary, as I said to go into excruciatingly deep details. But awareness of how an event takes place, or how a machine functions, or how one color supports another or clashes with it – well, this kind of awareness added to your story will make it richer, and your poetry stronger.

And I’m still looking for the pink dragon with one ballet slipper missing. If you see her, tell her to call me. Thanks!

Awareness


Oops! Sorry! Absence not intended! If you have friends who decide to go sailing ahead of a hurricane, and then call you while they’re trying to find a sheltered place to dock, tell them to stay safe, and then later, give them a loving but scathing piece of your mind.

That’s a sundog in the photo. It was very late in the day, sunset time, and for some reason involving complicated atmospheric physics, conditions were just right for the appearance of this effect produced by the Sun.  I never miss a chance to get a weird shot like this, so I got the camera, made a bunch of shots and then pulled this one up.

It’s really nothing more than water vapor that has crystallized at a high altitude and turned to ice. The ice acts as a prism, breaking the sun’s colors into this rainbow effect. It is unusual to see one like this, with ice crystals streaming eastward off the prism, away from the setting sun, but at that elevation there was a strong air current pushing anything like this cloud of frozen vapor eastward in front of it.

There are many aspects to the sundog. In some folklore, a sundog in the morning usually means three days of bad weather. Since they usually appear in the winter, if you are lucky enough to see one at sunrise, make a note to yourself to watch the weather forecasts and try keeping track of what happens. If you live in a city, the heat created by any city may or may not prevent a snowfall, but in winter – well, Ma Nature has her own way of doing things. Ask Boston how it felt to dig out of a 9-foot snowfall.

Some time back, I had to go visit my parents in the middle of winter so I started the trip at 5AM. Cold, clear sky in the morning at sunrise does not mean it will be like that forever, and I saw a perfect circular sundog around the rising sun as I headed south. I had been warned. Sure enough, when I returned to the north end of the state, I ran into a nasty snowstorm that was so bad, I pulled off the road at a truck stop to wait it out.

What’s this all about? When you set out to create a world independent of this planet, whether it is a fantasy world, a sci-fi world or just a small, local place where everybody knows everyone else and there is a mystery underway, awareness of your character’s surroundings is very pertinent to the story. Small details, like clouds in the sky ahead of or after a storm add color and substance to the narrative.

It isn’t just a sunny day. It’s a hot, sultry summer day, or a cold, wind-blasted winter sunrise after the blizzard sweeps the fields clean of snow, deposits it in your driveway, and brings down the local cell phone tower. No cell tower, no comm link. Or it’s the early summer sunrise with a wheat field that needs to be harvested, with small birds scattered here and there, sitting on the stems of the wheat, stealing the kernels right out of the seed heads. (Wheat kernels are seeds, as are corn kernels and dried whole peas.)

Those details are meant to draw your readers into the story and make them feel that they are part of it. It isn’t necessary to load up on details constantly, but as a means of putting your readers in touch with what your characters are doing and where they are, these things matter.  Put yourself in that setting in your imagination, look around you and ask yourself if this tavern full of grumpy, large guys is one where you can seek food, warmth and refuge from the cold and will the owner let you sit by the fire overnight?

On a Rainy Day….


Showy trilliums on the hiking path

It has been raining in my area since yesterday morning, off and on. Sometimes there was lightning, sometimes low, rumbling thunder, and sometimes there was simply rain. It’s a time when you can take advantage of the urge to stay indoors in a comfy chair with a good book, a drink within easy reach, and something to nibble on.

If you’re one of those who like to go out and splash through puddles, and I enjoy that, too, then it’s a chance to enjoy acting like a kid again. Put yourself back into how you viewed the world as a 12-year-old wearing jeans soggy from the mid-calf down, wet shoes (and maybe socks, too) and a waterproof jacket and umbrella, and remember the joy of splashing through a puddle.

And then what? Then what was it like to come back into the house, dump the wet shoes on the porch, hang the dripping jacket on a hook to dry along with the umbrella and change those soggy jeans and socks to dry? I could say the same things about winter, but the cold season hasn’t started just yet, so I’m holding off. But what could be better after drying off than hot (or ice) tea or coffee, some cookies, and a good book?

There’s a story to be written. It’s at the tips of your fingers and your mind. There is nothing wrong with finding inspiration in someone else’s story, either, so reading what other people have written while you’re recouping from splashing through puddles, with drinks and a plateful of stuff to nibble on is sometimes the best inspiration you can get.

If you think you’ve gotten stuck and have nothing to say, let it go. Move on. Read someone else’s story. Make notes on your own, yes – you might solve the problem that blocks progress that way. But do not worry that you’ve run out of things to say. This is simply a pause in the action, and you can set aside one or all of your written works for a while, and read what others have done.

After a brief hiatus, some splashing through puddles in the rain, and a trip through the field of poetry or fiction, or even non-fiction, you’ll find yourself refreshed and ready to go again.

The Source of Ideas


A hike along the river….

Setting off on the trail again, aren’t we?  And we don’t know just what is around that corner in the trail ahead. It could be anything from a pink dragon that lost a ballet slipper, to a blacksmith running a forge to create new shoes for Pegasus. And why would a flying horse need shoes, anyway? I don’t know; ask the blacksmith!

Therefore, I’m following up on the advice to you about giving free rein to your imagination to do creative work. There are many, many ways to spur that into action. Sometimes, the simplest approach works very well.

There’s always the “list-making” habit: creating a list of subjects you want to cover or just phrases, like titles that may/may not generate an idea for a story or a poem or a nonfiction essay. Shopping lists, if you will – well, they’re okay. I’ve got a bunch of them. They generate small images, but it’s kind of like looking through the wrong of the telescope. Not close enough, not enough information. It needs expansion.

Try moving beyond that to a sentence or a paragraph that gives you a brief description of what you think will happen in this story or poem. Now it becomes more than a brief phrase on your screen or notebook page. Now you can start moving forward: make a few notes, then make more notes, figure out where this story goes and in what form. How much of a mystery could you create in a painting that shows a half-opened door?

If you write poetry, have you considered something besides free verse? Have you considered creating an entire story written in the sonnet form? What about an epic poem giving us a saga in blank verse form, something that is specific in structure, but great for creating epic poems, and a story on the order of “Beowulf” or ‘The Iliad’? But instead of just mimicking “Beowulf”, you create your very own heroic saga, something that a trained bard would use as a means of entertaining not just the King, but the King’s entire court.

Most of us know that William Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays and also that he wrote hundreds of sonnets. So think about this small fact for just a moment: all of those plays were written in blank verse with the occasional classic sonnet thrown in for good measure. All of the sonnets followed the classic sonnet form. Elizabethan English is as close to modern English as you can hold together, so don’t let the line length or the rhythm and meter distract you.  Just stop for a moment and realize that only very seldom did Old Will write any of his characters’ lines in NON-verse form.

It’s less intimidating when you understand that, isn’t it?

Now, if he could do that, and your goal is to write poetry that people will remember and quote and tell other people about, you can do it, too. The only person holding you back is – well, Nobody.

Not straying from the subject at hand, I will add that a small paragraph that you write up as a basic guide to your story, whether it is in the form of prose or poetry, is something that will keep you on track. Yes, you can make notes as you go, and remember that things will change as the story progresses. That is nothing new. When you come up with an idea, record it in your notebook or whatever you’re using. Just a small pocket notebook will do the job.

Off you go, now. That pink dragon is still looking for her missing ballet slipper. Help her find it.