When I was growing up, I always looked to my oldest sister, Susan, to see what was ahead. Because she played the guitar, I was sure I would someday. Because she went to Prom in a dress with a boned bodice, I was planning on that, too.
Years ago when I began drafting my present work-in-progress, she sent me a list of ideas about writing a novel. I read it every so often for its distilled wisdom, and want to share it with you, verbatim:
Dear L –
Here’s what helps me most, spewed out in not any order at all:
1. See the story like a movie in your head. Write down what you see, even in a broken way, fast. (Fix later.)
2. See the story like a movie in your head with the sound turned off. Then where is the story? Edit to make the story powerful even with the sound off. This is a way to heal the talking head syndrome.
3. Think: What can I do to raise the stakes?
4. Not everything a writers’ workshop says about your story is right. After being workshopped, put your story away for a time, maybe a month. Reflect. Only then tackle again.
5. Choose concrete words, words that cause the reader to imagine as exactly as possible what you imagine. Look for words which create accurate images which are value-loaded.
6. Leave out everything the reader already knows.
7. The story is in the telling.
8. Run all details through the backpack test. (The idea is from my wonderful teacher Sands Hall: Remember that when you give a significant-feeling detail, the reader packs it into her memory and carries it through the whole story expecting her labor to pay off at some point. You must make sure there is a pay off.)
9. Staying in the same pov, you can roll the ‘camera’ in and out. It’s easier by far to start far out and roll camera in — at beginning of chapter or scene.
10. The end is in the beginning. The seeds of the conflict in the story must be present in the beginning. The beginning is often the last thing you know. Drop into the beginning advertisements for the future — foreshadowing.
11. Tense spots are a good place to dump in necessary history.
12. Dialog should never be people agreeing with each other. If they agree, use indirect discourse.
13. The tone of the story establishes it, creates expectations in the reader, as much as anything else — plot, genre, etc.
14. Henry James: “We only care about people in proportion to how well we know them.”
15. When a character walks into a place, how they see it establishes their character. They walk in with a bag of metaphor.
16. Beginnings: have to give the look of things early, or the reader fills in, and then is unpleasantly surprised to have to repaint the picture. Have to foreshadow the major plot strands, so reader can sense them unconsciously.
17. The end is often the reverse of the initial situation. The best endings are implicit, not explicit. They force the reader back into the story and themselves, looking for meaning.
18. Madeliene L’Engle in Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art: “All they (children) require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer a protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist. We name ourselves by the choices we make, and we help in our own naming by living through the choices, right or wrong, of the heroes and heroines whose stories we read.”
19. There should be something in the near and in the far distance that the protagonist wants (long and short plot strands).
Do you have a copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales? There is this wonderful fairytale about storytelling, The Elder Tree Mother. Among much else, the Elder Tree Mother, sitting in her elder tree which grows from a teapot says, “For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder bush has sprung out of the teapot.” and later, “The little boy lay on his bed and did not know whether he had been dreaming or listening to a story.”
The Treekeepers by Susan McGee Britton, published by Dutton Children’s Books in 2003, is now available electronically: http://www.amazon.com/The-Treekeepers-ebook/dp/B00ANX0TSW/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1357792592&sr=8-2&keywords=treekeepers It is a wonderful fantasy novel about a fierce heroine, Bird, whose life-or-death quest sparkles with ingenuity and wit. And I’m not just saying that because the author is my sister.
This weekend I will be speaking at the Whidbey Island MFA in Writing residency. I plan to share my sister’s wisdom.