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Archive for the ‘Books as Teachers’ Category

Writing a book is like juggling balloons. You pay attention to one element or the other, while a centrifugal force in your mind keeps them floating together in a big balloon cloud above your head.

Master Fiction Craft Juggling

A graphic depiction of learning fiction craft mastery

 

 In Read to Write, we begin with first sentences (front gatekeepers), because that’s where we begin as readers. A writer may, in fact, begin in any number of places—with a story seed (whether consciously or not), a character, place, theme, or any other craft element. This diagram shows how the course structure works for your manuscript draft or revision or to gain understanding of an author’s mastery. As we start at 1, thinking about beginnings, we’re also looking to the end (last sentences, gates swinging shut or opening out past the story) and to all that comes between. When writing a book, each craft element influences the development of all the others, and as the book builds from its essential reason for being, the cumulative effect of the elements reaches out to re-influence each element again individually.

This back-and-forth and circular dynamic enriches the writing and the book’s gestalt. Initial close examination of a few sentences sets the standard for mastery. The book is composed of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, into which we infuse all the elements. The thrill and challenge of writing a book is in keeping it all juggling in the air, whether while writing or going about other activities and consciously or subconsciously tucking new thoughts and observations up into the individual thought balloons and the larger whole.

Books by masterful authors, whether read during the course of working on a project or echoing from having been read however long ago, continually instruct and influence a writer’s processes and projects. 

The diagram above shows why a book project may feel like its spinning totally out of control at times or like its humming along at other times. The writer must make each element serve the cumulative effect of the book. Elements out of balance throw off synchronicity. 

Writers go through a semblance of this craft process many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, when writing a book. And with each new project, they begin again. Call it revision, but it’s more than that. It’s mastery, for which there are no direct routes, easy steps, or guaranteed results. No matter how skilled or famous the writer is, each new book calls for juggling its own way.

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My friend Padi Selwyn (coauthor of Living Your Life Out Loud) plans on taking the Read to Write workshop I’m giving at Copperfield’s Books. She’s picking up the fiction trail after having followed a career path from journalism training to marketing professional. She says, “My biggest challenge is prying open my imagination after years of being in the non fiction groove.”

Are you picturing a can opener to the head? A crowbar? I know how she feels. It’s not a matter of having no ideas. They’re in there somewhere. It’s a matter of getting them out and knowing what to do with them.

Prompts & triggers

Books and articles on writing craft are full of prompts, our lives are full of triggers. In my writing group, we’ve often flipped open a novel, pointed at a passage, and used it as a story starter or free write. I have stacks of free writes. You probably do too.

Circumstances and characters to suggest compelling stories are everywhere—in photographs of familiar or unfamiliar people, events, and places; overheard conversations on a bus; the face of the grocery clerk. We can take the classes, devour the craft books, get published, and still we come up against it: What next?

Starting a story is fairly easy. Taking it somewhere worth our time to write and a reader’s time to read is always a challenge. Here again, we do well to learn from masterful authors who craft a memorable tale inspired by a gesture, pairing of unlikely elements, or simple question: “What if?”

Story seeds

Alice Munro

In her Selected Stories, Alice Munro talks about story seeds, how from “the girl in the costume dress bending over the kittens” she began Simon’s Luck. Munro gives this gesture to the hostess of a party that the central character, Rose, attends, where she observes the moment. “‘That’s Tasha,’ the hostess said. ‘We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.'” Rose observes the woman “crooning, talking to the mother cat with an intense devotion that Rose thought affected. The shawl around her shoulders was black, rimmed with jet beads. Some beads were crooked. Some were missing.” Details, when noted by a character, have significance. Rose, we discover eventually, has her own fears of touching and being touched, of giving someone power over her by being touched by him or touching him, of giving and receiving love. She is the cat and the kitten.

Yann Martel

In Life of Pi, Yann Martel assembles zoo animals, shipwreck, lifeboat, and—bingo!—a talking tiger! Pi tells a fantastic story, unbelievable but for the details of his survival. “In my case, to protect myself from Richard Parker while I trained him, I made a shield with a turtle shell. I cut a notch on each side of the shell and connected them with a length of rope. The shield was heavier than I would have liked, but do soldiers ever get to choose their ordnance?”

Italo Calvino

When Italo Calvino wrote Baron in the Trees, I wonder if he asked, “What if a disobedient boy named Cosimo, dressed up in his tricorne hat and green tunic, climbs a tree and never comes down?” Or did he just start writing, as if reporting: “It was on  15 June 1767 that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the last time. And it might have been today, I remember it so clearly. We were in the diningroom of our house at Ombrosa, the windows framing the thick branches of the great holm oak in the park.” We might doubt the narrator’s memory, except that we get reliable details bit by bit—”a breeze was blowing from the sea” as Cosimo “pushed away his plateful of snails.” 

Lesson for writers

Asking “What if?” can start a story. Asking “What now? What next?” can unleash imagination for vivid writing.

Take your story for a walk 

Let a dog teach you a few tricks. Our beloved black Lab, Sparky, who died last summer, took me on walks for twelve good years. He’d sniff the grass, pee, pull at the leash, stop, sniff, pee, pull. He’d gnaw fallen apples, try to chase cats, yanking me along with him. He’d be excited in the moment, eager for the next. At the dog park, he’d run free, sniffing furry behinds, chasing balls, and eagerly come running when time to leave. He’d pant at the gate—”What now? What next?”

If you feel you’re forcing your idea, just take your story for a walk—literally and metaphorically. Stop and sniff. Look and listen. Touch and taste. What’s there? What might be? Follow the trail. Build detail upon meaningful detail. If you think you know the destination, keep it in mind, but allow for detours and surprises. If you don’t know the destination, look into the distance every now and then. Stop along the way, read a good book. Pay close attention. Accompany the author as he or she asks, “What if? What now? What next.” Learn how his or her story becomes.

In future posts, I’ll discuss techniques for making imaginative leaps. But it always comes back to feet on the ground, step, step, walk the story or let it walk you, detail by detail. And daily, also, let imagination run free.

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Writing is a solitary act with a communal spirit among writers and readers. As writers, we need to be close readers, not only to learn from the masters, but also to be the audience that we would like to have for our own books. In this blog, we’ll examine good books to learn craft and technique, as well as to enrich our appreciation of writing. We’ll ask, “What makes fine fiction? How or why did that author do that?” 

Lessons for writers

We’ll discover the lessons that masterful writing and wonderful books can teach us. Topics include: Gatekeepers (first & last sentences)& Story Seeds (inspirations, triggers, starting points); Voice, Style & Point of View; Character; Place; Tension; Time & Consciousness; Love & Other Emotions; Image & Senses; Theme & Gestalt; and more. Some of the material investigated comes from a course curriculum I designed for a workshop series at Copperfield’s Books.

I hope you’ll read to write and join the discussion when you have a discovery or question to share with this blog.

I’ve just read for the third time “The Days of Abandonment” by Elena Ferrante. From the first sentence to the last, this unassuming, raw domestic drama riveted me to care about Olga and her world as it broke around her and came together again. In the next posts, I’ll examine what this book teaches.

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