Storytelling ingredients… just like making cookies

If you’re human, you have a favorite dish.  Doesn’t matter what it is. It’s your comfort food, your go-to when you don’t want to be bothered with choosing, or what you remember the most often when you’re away from home and want something really good.  It may be simple and easy to fix, or complicated and time-consuming, but it’s the one thing you turn to when all other dishes fail.

This applies to creating stories, too. They have characters, places, narrative, beginnings, action, middles and endings.  Those are ingredients, and how you treat them determines how the story will proceed. You may have a favorite genre, such as steampunk or Regency romance or mystery. All have specific ingredients or qualities that make them part of a genre. You can make all these ingredients into something as complex as beef bourguignon (beef burgundy), or you can make your story as simple and familiar as mac and cheese.

I like making chocolate chip cookies.  I have the Tollhouse recipe memorized. I could make a batch in my sleep. But I have a secret ingredient that makes them more than just regular chocolate chip cookies. Well, I have two, but I’ll come to that.

The recipe itself is uncomplicated. The ingredients are simple: eggs, butter, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt, chocolate chips.

But let’s dig into that list of ingredients. Instead of just brown sugar, I use dark brown sugar. Why? It has extra molasses, more than light brown sugar. More flavor. I use vanilla, a particular brand that seems to have a brighter flavor than regular vanilla. I use unbleached flour. The chocolate chips are heavier in cacao than the other chocolate chips, but they don’t cost any more than the others. I want some serious chocolate chip cookies, so I add a little more than just the usual ingredients.

There’s your story: a little more than just the usual ingredients.  You add bits and pieces of information here and there, like rich, dark chocolate chips scattered through cookie dough, that draw your readers into the story.  You describe neighborhoods and countryside and villages, cities and towns as if you’ve lived there half your life.  You know the people down the street and next door, because you invented them.

Oh, but wait! Your people don’t live on a street or in a neighborhood. They live on a large island with an inlet bay that nearly splits the island in two, and the two populated halves of the island have been fighting over fishing and sailing rights to that water body for longer than human memory.

The neighborhood and the island are the same thing as the cookie dough in my cookies. They hold the chocolate chips, vanilla, and sugars that enrich the story. They make it whole and believable.  You should be able to stand at the head of the inlet bay in the center of that island or in the middle of the park on the square in that neighborhood and give me, your reader, an idea of what it’s like to live there and who those other people are, just as you know the ingredients in your favorite recipe so well that you can recount them from memory.

Your cookbooks, to use a metaphor, are easy to find: the Chicago Manual of Style. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.  The Oxford Dictionary. Roget’s Thesaurus. Since there is a wealth of material available online for reference, you can search by subject matter. Better yet, you can go to the library and find even more stuff in the stacks.  Do not ignore the work of people you never heard of. They may add more than just exotic flavor to your stories.

If you’re still in school, there should be an English teacher somewhere who may give you extra credit for work you do outside of class and who may be able to push you into doing better work than you ever thought you could.

Now, with any recipe or any story, there are requirements you have to meet. Recipes require specific ingredients and specific methods. If you don’t follow those guides, the recipe fails.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to vary the recipe, but the first few times you use it, follow the instructions.  Get familiar with it, and then make the variations to suit yourself.

The same holds true of a story, whether it’s one page, a novella, or a full-length novel in a series. It has to have a start, middle, and ending. The characters really do need a conflict of some kind, something that needs resolution, and the ending should satisfy the needs of the characters. This is how stories work.  It does your reader no good to have wonderful character descriptions (midnight-dark 80% cacao chocolate chips) if they don’t do anything.  Where’s the conflict, or the problem, for the characters to solve? What’s the ending? What’s the argument?

If you have all the cookie dough ingredients standing by, including that bottle of real Madagascar bourbon vanilla, but you never get around to mixing them into cookie dough, you’ll never have a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  But you can mix the dough, refrigerate or freeze it, and come back to it later, and you just might find that setting it aside for a while gives you a better batch of cookies.

If you create a catalog of characters, put them to work.  If you can’t figure out where the story goes, that’s fine. Set it aside. Do something else and come back to the story later. But don’t throw out what you’ve already created.  Let it ferment, and see what happens to those characters. Give them something to do.

Oh, the two secret ingredients in my cookies?  The classic recipe calls for one teaspoon of vanilla.  I use two teaspoons of vanilla, plus the dark brown sugar instead of light brown.  Go ahead:  Hand me a plate of chocolate chip cookies and put me into the middle of the story.  Draw me in.

Just add a little more flavor.


To every season, there is a purpose….

My sunflower in bloom

My sunflower in bloom

Summer’s end is coming closer every day. We’ve had either too much rain or too little. The flowerbed I planted never sprouted and the ants ate the seedlings in the pots of flowers that I put out.

So I started over.

That’s what you do. I said in my last post that I will get stuck and have nothing to show for my time. It happens to all of us. Is there a solution to this problem? Of course there is! There’s always a solution!

Okay, but is the solution going to make you feel guilty somehow, when you think that maybe staring out at the distant blue horizon is less important and less valuable than doing something that everyone can see? I’m talking about brainstorming when you’re stuck.

I went to a restaurant on one of those boring, dull, off-and-on rainy days that had me feeling cooped up in my itty-bitty house and took pens and a small notebook along, with the intention of just making notes. Instead, I stared out one of the picture windows toward the west, toward the very pale, wimpy sun dropping lower through the rainy clouds toward the horizon, and did not put a single word on paper. Finally, I made a note: I have nothing important to say right now, with a big smiley face, and I paid the bill for my nice, crispy french fries, and went home.

And that’s it right there: sometimes brainstorming works, sometimes it doesn’t. Your brain goes blank. Your characters are taking naps in your mind. Your plotline has chosen a new path to follow without asking your permission. Your brainstorming session which was meant to refire the engine of your imagination petered out to a mere pop of backfiring noise and simply didn’t restart as you’d hoped. Gee whiz, even Chaucer and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Charles Dickens had bad days, you know!

Normally, this is when people trash the story and delete it, but here is the solution: DON’T DELETE IT. Period.

Set it aside. Print it out. Put it in a 3-ring binder with the other stuff. Let it gestate. Go do something else. Make chocolate chip cookies with an extra splash of vanilla. Have a small notebook at your elbow and every time you put a sheet of cookies into the oven (10 minutes at 375F for chewy, 11 minutes for crisp), write a brief sentence about something.

Title this page ‘What if…’

See, this is when the notebook becomes your source for more stories. So you ran out of things to say about the story you were working on – so what? It happens. It’s part of the job, and yes, writing is a job, one that you chose to do, and one that you can do for the rest of your life if you want to.

If you inhabit the working world, you can carry that little notebook in your purse or briefcase and make notes on the train or the bus. You can write them up on your smartphone and mail them to yourself. I used to do that, with a pen and notebook. Then as soon as I got home, I’d put typing paper in the typewriter and copy my ‘what ifs’. They were all single sentences like ‘what if… your new neighbor next door never told you who he was or where he came from, but after he vacated his apartment, men with little plastic ID cards showed up and asked you lots of strange questions about him?’

Going through my 3-ring notebooks full of stuff that I started a L-O-N-G time ago, I found that particular story, which I started in 1989, reread what I had written, and decided I was glad I kept it because it was a good idea, after all. I just have to revise it here and there, and finish it. I don’t care if it turns into a novel or stays a short story or fits somewhere in between. If it was a good idea 24 years ago and it still works now, it’s worth the effort to finish it.

That’s my point.

Ditch the guilt and let your brain churn. This is not done for instant gratification. It takes time and persistence, and the more you do, the better a writer you will be.

I know people who will discard some bright idea because they can’t figure out how to make it work right away, or at least, they think they can’t. Well, if you come up with the idea, you put it into existence on a piece of paper and store it with the other ideas you had. Then go back and review it. You’ll most likely figure out how to make it work.

This is where you start over, replant the seeds and let her rip. Never mind if you run out of gas. Keep it. You can always do revisions later. You’ll be surprised how much is worth keeping and finishing.

Oh, yeah – my sunflower? Poor thing isn’t going to make it through the summer. The cardinals discovered it and they’ve been eating the seeds every morning. I can hear them around sunrise. They just think I don’t know. And there is another ‘what if….’

Endeavor to persevere….

Swifts in a bunch

Swifts in a bunch

Those were the words of Lone Watie, from the movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales’.

I get stuck on a regular basis. No excuses, I simply get stuck. I start a chapter and bog down. I start a sentence and reread it and groan.

We all have something to say. We all want to be heard, whether it’s stories, full-length novels, poetry, or just twittering in the Ethernet. We, the people on the business end of the monitor screen, want to know that someone, somewhere, is willing to take a few seconds or minutes or even hours out of their busy, busy lives to notice what we have to say or create.

We keep cranking out words and then finally, somebody notices and ‘likes’ it, or not. If it’s ‘like’, we’re tickled pink and giggly. If it’s ‘not’, we get upset. How could anyone possibly not like what I said, wrote, produced? How? How? How can anyone be so – well, insensitive?!?

Well, this happens all the time, and it happens to everyone, so let’s talk about that.

What I’ve noticed in the ‘newly pressed’ groups is the thousands of people who want to tell us something or show us something, and most important, they want us to know about it. Obviously, we can’t all be noticed all the time. The work of some people catches our eye and those are the people we latch onto and continue to follow. The others, not so much. We aren’t impressed by it, it isn’t to our taste, it doesn’t strike a common chord.

That’s okay.

In the process of writing, along with visual arts like painting and photography and sculpture, we cannot please everyone. We can only strive to do our best. So if you are not getting the audience that you had hoped for, ask yourself if you did your best each time you create something. I will not say ‘be your own harshest critic’, but review what you did and ask that question: did I do my best with my creative endeavor? If I were going to plunk down money for something, would I buy this? Would I check it out of the library, put it on my bookshelf, hang it on my walls?

I want to know what somebody else thinks of the stories I create, so I ask for feedback. I want constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is not flaming you. Constructive criticism is someone telling you ‘you got typos!’ or ‘spellcheck is not your best friend’. (Hint: Get a print copy of a spelling dictionary.) Flaming you is destructive, aimed at trampling you into giving up on the idea. If you can survive being flamed, it means that you have enough sense to take that kind of thing with a grain of salt… and then you go right back to what you were doing.

Someone did once post a very critical review of something I wrote, but instead of being hurt, I read it several times, reviewed my own work and asked myself if it really was the best I could have done. Could I have done a better job? I did not feel that I had been flamed. It was more a ‘heads up and snap out of it’ for me.

If you can’t take even constructive criticism without your feelings getting hurt, you need to rethink your priorities.

Are you doing creative work because you want a pat on the head and a ribbon just for showing up, or are you doing this work because you have something to say, to show us, to make us laugh and weep?

The creative arts are full of people who labor quietly, but whose continuous production never gets the immediate kind of attention generated by viral social media. Then finally, after what seems like near-eternity, someone notices and their stories, paintings, poetry, photography all begin to find a footing. These are the people whose work lasts, who generate long-term followings and whose work lives well beyond the end of their lifetime.

As Lone Watie said ‘Endeavor to persevere.’

A long walk in the woods provides… clues

A hike along the river....

A hike along the river….

I spent about an hour yesterday taking a long hike on a path along
a river not too far from my house. The hike started on a cloudy afternoon, with the very possible prospect of rain. I needed to get out and get some fresh air. There is nothing worse than being cooped up indoors. Even if the promise of rain is likely to be kept, getting out for a walk, however brief it might be, is better than no walk at all. So I went.

...continuing along the path

…continuing along the path

I am not sorry I did, that I spent the time on it, that the sun finally came out of hiding or that when I got back to my car I was quite warm, tired and happy to have done a mere 3.5 miles roundtrip in a little under an hour. For me, that’s a slow pace but I took my camera along, as always, and disregarded the distance.
Showy trillium on DP river trail

The point is that we all have a very real need to step away from the short-range, close focus on our creative endeavors and get some fresh air, on a regular basis. We need to put down the electronic stuff occasionally and look around at the real world, the tangible world that we live in if we expect the worlds we create out of whole cloth to be believable. It’s the small things which need to be noticed, not the illuminated screen in front of you.

Showy trilliums on the hiking path

Showy trilliums on the hiking path

Paying attention to those little things, to something as small as a frog on a log in the sunshine, makes your worlds more real to your readers. There are pollinating insects as small as the head of a pin that most people don’t notice, but they inhabit their own tiny world. If a detective in a mystery novel notices these things, shouldn’t you, the person who created the detective, notice those small things, too?

In regard to characters

Geese doing morning yoga

Yes, geese do yoga at the start of the day.

Now I’m going to expand a little more on what I said last time.

This has to do with the characters you create if you are writing fiction. I think it’s a real good idea to spend a little time interviewing them, to see how much depth you can give them. What drives them?

I’ve said before that one of my favorite writers is the late Georgette Heyer. She wrote a long, long list of period romance novels set in the timeframe of the Regency Period in England, before and after the War of Independence. She does refer to specific military actions to set the stage for some of the male characters and why they say and do some of the things they do. I don’t know if she ever did anything like an interview for any of the people whose lives she made so real for her readers, but her perception of those people was bolstered by superb research into the Regency Period itself.

For example, in ‘The Toll Gate’, Captain John Staple gets bored silly if he doesn’t have an adventure on a regular basis. The fights with Napoleon gave him that, and then he was picked up at sea by smugglers and spent a week with them. His mother wants him to find the right girl, all the girls he’s met bore him silly, and he wants to join his friend Babbacombe for hunting, because it’s early fall and the scenting days will give them a few great runs. So he bails out of his cousin’s dinner party, goes off to find his way north, and gets lost in the rain and falls into a wonderful (by his words) mystery. Along the way, he does meet his dream girl. You can almost hear the fanfare when they see other for the first time.

Piled into all of this are Heyer’s skillful inclusions of character assessment for each of the people involved in this adventure. She made tons and tons of notes for her stories. This is the best kind of example to follow.

So how do you do something like that for people who live in a world created out of whole cloth, as in sword-and-sorcery stories, fantasies, and science fiction, or just plain old fiction?

When I said last time ‘make a lot of notes’, this is something that I do. It’s necessary for me, at least, to do this, because I find that these characters which I imagined into existence not only decide what THEY want to do and how the story should be told, but they also are grumpy, happy, angry, excited, quizzical, lost and completely bewildered in the ‘why is this happening?’ sense, and definitely more and more solid.

I don’t mean that I merely ask someone what annoys or excites him or her, or that I create a physical description of someone as a frame of reference. If I have a team of five people who were thrown together and left on their own, I want to find out what their quirks are, what makes them part of this team, what makes them laugh and cry and what their goals and desires are.

All your notes, and if you also want to do the Q&A thing, interviews with your characters to find their speech patterns and how they think, are worth every second of your time and effort. I’ve found in doing this that I’ve compiled many, many pages of information that gives my characters more depth.

I want to know what it is that will cause a character like Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in ‘Breaking Bad’ to go from being just a man who left his job to being a dark, ruthless criminal. And why did he leave Gray Matter Tech in the first place? The depth of that fall into darkness was fascinating, because he could have done just the opposite and become a crusader like Jack Bauer played by Kiefer Sutherland in ’24’

It’s being willing to look at these things and put them into play that gives invented characters depth and makes them more real to people.

Clearing the cobwebs….

Showy trilliums

Showy trilliums

Okay, no excuses. There are times when life simply gets in the way. It isn’t neglect that kept me away, I was actually cranking out copy for several books. Yes – several. And while it seems vainglorious to me to say “I busted my butt to get this done”, well, frankly, I did just that. I neglected my blog here unintentionally while I focused on my stories.

So I’ll give you all a pump-up about yourselves and what you do, if I can.

In fiction, any writer’s desire and responsiblity are to create and firmly establish the characters and events in those stories which he or she is creating for you, the readers, to enjoy.

I do know people who want desperately to write something – anything – and have a good start, but come to a grinding halt because they asked someone to read the starts they’ve made and are – well, disappointed, maybe even a little hurt, maybe even a teensy bit teary-eyed that the incomplete piece which they wrote, they labored over, they gave life to isn’t viewed as Pulitzer material. So, they quit before they even get a start.

Don’t do that.

If someone says ‘you got typos!’, deal with it. Fix them. Fix the punctuation mistakes. Get a spelling dictionary or find one online. Make yourself look as smart as you are. Most of the time, when people say ‘you got booboos’, it’s merely pointing out simple errors that you didn’t catch in your draft. No one is trying to hurt your feelings.

There are people who like to engage in flamewars toward everyone, because it makes them feel good about themselves. That is not the same thing as being told ‘you got typos’. Not remotely. It is just bad manners.

These are your steps in writing a piece of fiction.
1 – Decide if it’s a short/long story or a novel.
2 – Ask yourself if there is more than one story for this idea, i.e., can this become a series of stories?
3 – Are you serious enough to finish what you wrote, or are you just dabbling with ideas? If it is just ideas, keep them for later use.
4 – Write the first draft, set it aside, write a brief draft or even a long summary of another story, set it aside and go back to your first story.
5 – Make notes. Make a LOT of notes. Keep them with your story. Review them regularly. You’ll find your original idea has wandered off in a new direction.

You will be pleasantly surprised to find that, not only has your story taken on a life and will of its own, but your original idea may show distinct signs of growing larger than you had thought it would, and may even start splitting into various parts on its own.

For example, that hot chick who cast her eye on the hero might just be a spy looking for easy prey. Not finding it, she just may ditch that resource and start looking again. In other words, the guy she thought was the ship’s engineer turns out to the the guy who serves baked beans in the mess line, and the only thing he’s good for is relieving the tension in her… uh, her shoulders. Yeah, that’s it! Her shoulders. Got it. So is she a spy? Or is she up to something else?

I posted the picture of the trilliums partly because it’s spring at long last, and partly because that wildflower has a brief period of above-ground existence, putting out a floral head to attract pollinators until the rhizomes at its roots have started to grow and it can split off into new plants. When it’s done for the season, it dies back and disappears to gestate underground until next spring.

Consider the trillium as an analogy to writing. You have great ideas. They need to grow into mature and complete stories. That dieback to prepare for next spring is the same thing that you do when you come up with an idea for a story. You make notes about it, you do some research on the subject, and you start the first draft.

The ideas are what you record and expand on with notes, research to support your storyline, and possibly discovering that maybe your subject really has not had much attention because everyone else is following a different trend. And this is why I say don’t ask someone to review a partially-written draft. The wrong words, a misunderstood comment, a snort of derisive laughter and ‘no one writes about this’ may stop you before you even get started.

Now, how will you know whether or not you can do this thing called writing unless you stop asking for permission to do it?

There is nothing wrong with establishing your own subject line of stories. People do it all the time. Have enough confidence in yourself to choose to follow your own path. You do not need permission to do that, any more than the trilliums need permission to poke their way above ground and blossom.

Well, what are you waiting for? You don’t need anyone’s permission to write!

On delays and – well, whatever!

Beach rocks sunning themselves

Beach rocks sunning themselves

Yes, I’ve been distracted, by something that has nothing to do with writing. Yes, I failed to make posts that I woulda-coulda-shoulda made. Yes, I slacked off, I goofed off, I set this place aside and told it I’d be back in a few. Then I realized that I missed it a lot and took it off the shelf. I guess some of it was also a little bit of confusion. I wasn’t even sure I had anything important to say.

A 1st edition of Joseph Conrad's short stories

A 1st edition of Joseph Conrad’s short stories

It wasn’t that writing specifically was put on the back burner. I post comments on someone else’s blog regularly. That other blog has given me the gift of putting my brain to work harder, more than I realized. I won’t give up posting comments there, nor will I neglect my own work. I have three novels in progress and they, too, were set aside while I goofed off.

There is, however, a great deal of value in stepping back from something like this and then coming back to it because you miss spouting off in print.

I had to figure out how to create sci-fi ‘armor’ for a team in a story, and give them something that protects them against a fictitious sci-fi weapon. I only bring this up because if someone can imagine something existing, eventually someone will do the math and others will do the experiments, and at some point, the imagined object will come into existence.

Your computer, for example, started as INIAC in a room-sized facility filled with telephone switchboards and switching jacks and women operators making the switches, and vacuum tubes and all sorts of peculiar items that are in a museum somewhere, and now you can do 100,000 times what INIAC could with your smartphone or tablet or whatever you have.

So I went back to my basic sci-fi author, Robert Heinlein and the part in ‘Have Spacesuit – Will Travel’ where he describes Peewee’s spacesuit helmet, which is a plasma bubble that can be opaqued. If you slap it, your hand will bounce off of it, but you can push your hand through it slowly and not be injured. This is what’s behind the scene in ‘Star Wars’ with the tractor beam pulling Han Solo’s spaceship into the Death Star through an opening without the storm troopers flying out the door. The plasma field acts as an airlock, keeping space out.

So what did I come up with? Using fullerenes, or buckyfibers as bucky balls and bucky paper to create a structure for plasma armor that is lightweight, flexible and protects the wearer from injury.

In that regard, I guess my goofing off wasn’t so awful, after all.

Then I went on to my incubus/succubus story, which got bogged down in narrative and needs to pick up the pace. The ‘fast forward to’ style doesn’t work for me, because it skips important things such as why ‘she’ (the main character, the narrator) becomes who and what she ends up being. (Damn! A dangling participle!! Shame on me!!! That’s bad writing, but you get the idea.) When you create someone out of whole cloth, unless you plan to merely present a cardboard cutout for hallway decoration, your protagonist needs a reason for existence, a focus that impels her (or him) to do what your have planned for that story. Having a mere concept is not enough. Real people require substance to exist.

The red Swingline stapler

The red Swingline stapler

And then there’s that whole business about ‘can I create a story from a man’s point of view if I’m not one’. Yeah. Since there are men who write under women’s nom de plumes, then the answer is ‘yes’, but it requires that I learn how they really think and that demands getting past the barrier of the differences between us. That involves getting grown men to tell me the truth about what they think about in a firefight, because this story’s main character is a warrior lost in a future world of warfare through no fault of his own. I persisted and finally got honest answers. That was all I asked for.

I think this means that my goofing off time was less goofing off than collecting info for future reference. I did a lot more than just collect information, but didn’t realize it until I looked back on all the notes I’d taken.

So maybe I wasn’t goofing off, after all, but — well, doing research?