Where a Story Starts

When I start a new writing project, I like knowing where the story starts, where it’s going to end and all the hot spots along the way. I do extensive character profiles until I know what their favourite breakfast is. Then when I’m ready to start writing, it makes sense to hammer out chapter one, scene one. Except, that’s not always the case.

Sometimes at this early stage, when a new novel is on the cusp of taking its first breaths, it’s all about one scene, and it’s not always where the story begins.

When I think back to some of my most loved books, it’s often one scene that jumps at me. It doesn’t have to be a pivotal moment, just one that is important to the character, and it usually involves dialogue that pops (I read it aloud if it’s really good).

As a writer, I have my favourites too, knowing when a scene I write is a winner, one I hope others will remember.

At the moment, I’m here at the start of a new project and there’s a scene that has to be writtten first. It happens one-third of the way through the plot but it has to be first out of the gates. It may not be the beginning of the book, but it most certainly is the beginning of this creative journey.

 

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Show a Little Emotion

Emotion: it’s a key ingredient to any good book.

Without emotion, we don’t care about what the characters are doing or why. Stories that play out interesting plots without the element of emotional experience lose our interest because we are human and emotion is at the core of who we are.

Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman get that. They have written a book called The Emotion Thesaurus and it’s filled with tips for writers on how to convey the right emotion at the right time, without the telling that separates a reader from the character.

The book devotes a few pages to each emotion, giving suggestions on how that particular emotion can be written. Seventy-five root emotions, including anger, love and confusion, are broken down into their physical signals, internal sensations and mental responses. So if you’ve exhausted ways of showing your reader how a character is angry, look it up and pick something from the list like cracking knuckles or a pulsing vein.

While I think this resource could help writers, especially novice writers, it does feel a bit like cheating. It’s like writing a test with notes in your desk and when you get to the tough question, just take a peek and find the answer.  But who knows, the next time I’m faced with a tricky emotional description, I may find myself skimming through the list for ideas.

Despite my hesitation, what I really liked about the book are the writing tips that appear after each emotion’s summary. Here is a list of my four favourite tips:

  1. “To increase tension in a scene, think about what is motivating your character, and which emotions could get in the way. Introduce an event that creates the very emotions the character wishes to avoid.”
  2. “Emotion should always lead to decision making, either good or bad, that will propel the story forward.”
  3. “One way to create emotional intensity is to have the character remember the stakes on the cusp of taking action. Worry over the outcome can add a slice of desperation to any scene and create a compelling emotional pull for the reader.”
  4. “If your scene includes a small dip into the past to retrieve information that has direct bearing on the current action, make sure there is an emotional component. Emotions are triggers to memory and help tie the present to the past.”

Cover Art

A good book cover will draw you in. A great cover might tempt you to pick up the book and read the back, sometimes even open to the first page. Lots has been written and discussed on the topic of cover art to know it’s a key marketing feature.

I know for myself that the visual of the cover remains in my mind as I read a book. Months or years later, the book cover will bring back the story and characters. Long after the book has made it to my shelves, one look at the cover and I can remember the book from where it sat on my bedside table, or how it peeked above the edge of my purse when I pulled it out to read.

But now that I mostly use my e-reader, how important is the cover to me anymore? I pick up my kindle and it delivers me to the page I was last reading. The visual that goes along with the story isn’t as prominent as it used to be. Regardless, I still think every book, paper or electronic, benefits from good cover art.

From early on in the process of writing Shadow Dreams, I had this image in my head of the main character Adele. Her face, the daisies in her hair and her ring all feature prominently in the opening chapter, as well as a key scene later in the book. I knew this image of her would make a stunning cover. And truthfully, I am drawn to covers that feature the character’s image. After acquiring a photographer and choosing a model (Julia frances), I had this photo taken and the cover produced. While I’ve posted the photo in a previous post, the background work, done by the amazing Alexandria N. Thompson (Graphic Designer), adds a whole new dimension.

Whether I take the route of self-publishing this novel or not, this artwork has special meaning for me. It is very fulfilling to see a visual image of my character and I am thrilled with the end product.

Thanks to Ed Huang, photographer for his vision and talent.

 


Story Telling is Child’s Play / The Graduate

The kids have this game. I got it for my son years ago and they all still play it. Its name is simple and to the point: “The Story Telling Game”.  The rules are simple. You turn over cards with pictures of random people, animals, objects and food. And you build a story with them.

Like if you get magician, eggs, cow and chair, you make a story like this: A magician wakes up in the morning. He eats eggs for breakfast, then milks the cow in the backyard. Then he trips on the chair and dies.

Not gripping stuff, I know, but still enough to get the juices of their imagination going and encourage creativity. Most of the time, the story goes like this: this happened, then this happened, then this happened. But sometimes, when the stars are aligned just right, they are genius story weavers who come up with very creative stories that ignite my hopes that they will love writing for their whole lives. After all, what better way to get started writing flash fiction?

The kids left the game lying out the other day. I thought I’d give it a try. Why not? So I shuffled the cards around and pulled out three. I was hoping for lumberjack, skeleton and hammer. Or at least fireman, bed and banana. But instead I got graduate, kiwi and tree.

But I’m a writer. How hard could this be? You be the judge:

The Graduate by Marianne Su

Max pulled out of the parking lot, ignoring how the graduation cap on the passenger seat mocked him with self-importance. The diploma, rolled up and tied with a celebratory red ribbon, tapped against the cup holder where it sat soaking up that morning’s coffee spill.

As a graduate, Max wanted to ride the wave of optimism that had been peddled at the ceremony, but all he could focus on was what messages and e-mails waited for him at home. If only the economy was stronger, if only one of his applications got answered, if only there were jobs.

As he neared home, a growing sense of helplessness spread from his heart to his gut. Max figured it was the kiwi he’d eaten at the graduation buffet that hadn’t tasted right. At the time, he figured his bitterness had corrupted his taste buds but the encroaching nausea was getting stronger.

Max blinked hard. His head felt light. The street ahead faded into a blur. He reached up to rub his eyes when the road took a bend without him. Max grabbed the steering wheel, sending his tires screeching across the pavement, thinking he’d corrected the car’s path just in time. But he’d been too late. Crashing into a tree, the car came to a stop.

From high above Max watched the car, saw his body slumped over the wheel. The cap and diploma lay on the car floor, the only survivors of the crash. The car alarm faded until all Max could hear was the whistle of the wind in the tree’s leaves, telling him he didn’t need to worry about the future anymore.


Branches

by Marianne Su

I have a song in my head. Its repetitive tune drowns out the coherent thoughts that are losing the battle. The driving beat sends my feet faster along the path, the one I swore never to take. I shut out the voice that’s scared, I won’t listen to fear, it has never served me. I only want to be alone.

The sun dies as I head deeper into the woods. Dead branches cast shadows on the ground like veins, exposed and vulnerable. Darkness takes over, spreading through the forest, through me. Quiet descends, chasing away the life. They know too.

When I reach the stream, I stop. Blood courses through me. It thumps in my ears. My fingertips tingle with its force. I am here, in this place, ready.

I close my eyes and feel her nearby. Her spindly fingers reach for me like the tips of bare branches. They brush my shoulder, play with my hair, kiss my cheek. The rush is over, my patience has been rewarded. I stand very still, letting the shadows invade me.


My Writing Journal’s Vacation

So my bags were packed last week. Took the family on a vacation armed with my writing journal and my favourite pen.

I had the next chapter laid out in my head, the plot points set, the scenes visible in my mind. All I had to do was put it down in writing. I started on the plane. There’s nothing like a fresh page and four hours in one spot to get some work done. I got a few paragraphs finished before the drink cart arrived. And that was the end of my writing.

I tried. I popped that book in my beach bag each day. It saw lots of sun. But instead of my inspired words, the pages are filled with the kids’ doodles and countless tic tac toe games that were battled under the palm trees on the beach. The journal, my journal, was commandeered by the kids to play games. It’s all good.

After all, who works on their vacation? Even people who love their jobs take a break from them once in a while. So I forgave myself for not writing after a few days (the mojito’s helped drown the guilt). That’s what a vacation is for. Besides, the chapter is still alive in my imagination. I’ll get to it soon…after all the laundry is done.


Valentine Horror

by Marianne Su

The train screeched along the tracks through the narrow tunnel. Headlights beamed across the grey walls of the station. I took tentative steps across the platform, clenching my fists the way I always do. I walked through the crowd of passengers, my hollow form invisible to them. No one noticed me that day either, not until the train’s brakes screamed in alarm.

My toes curled over the edge. The billboard was gone but its ghostly imprint lay on the dusty tiles across the tracks. Its message was still clear in my mind, with pink hearts and curly lettering. To most it had been harmless and frivolous without the taunting undertones that screamed to me.

Rumbling echoes grew louder. I leaned forward but the moment was never right, not like it was that first time. There were no frantic brakes or horrified screams, just a reminder that since that day when everything changed, some things stayed the same.


When to Dump a Book…

We’ve all been there. You’re reading a book that’s not grabbing you. Your mind is wandering while your eyes scan the words. Do you read or do you close? The answer for me is easy. Keep going. I never give up on a book but at the moment, I’m tempted.

A friend lent me a book, no a series, that I’m not into. While I read, I can’t help but think of the long to-be-read list on my kindle. Then there’s my own book I’m writing. Why waste time reading a book I don’t want to read?

Options:

  1. Tell friend thanks but no thanks.
  2. Google book and read synopsis in case friend wants to discuss (I admit this was a possibility)
  3. Read on.

I will read on. I just can’t give up on the writer, the person who slaved over the book, got it published and presumably loves their novel. Or maybe I’ll discover a new genre I thought wasn’t for me. Besides, I’ve had books surprise me and become great. Hopefully this happens within the first half of the book.

I know I’m probably more patient than most readers because we all hear about how important it is to grab a reader early on. I’m sure this book I’m reading must have grabbed some agent and publisher, just not me. And while I know people who will stop reading after the first chapter if they don’t like it, that sounds harsh to me.

I just know that I’d want someone who started a book of mine to give it a good chance. Hopefully they won’t be mentally making their grocery list while reading it. So I’ll plough through the book but my generosity stops on the last page. Don’t sell it to me and I won’t feel obliged to read book two. I think that’s fair.

Do you stick with a book or do you have a cut-off point where you’ll put yourself out of your misery?


A Seed Thought

I came across a poem lately that can mean a lot of things to many people.  They are beautiful words about accepting the growth process of things in life, including ourselves.  But I also hear something in this poem about the writing process.

It speaks to me about the evolution of a story, about how we may be frustrated along the way but to trust that there is a story somewhere developing to its full potential.  All writers get frustrated with the growing pains of a story but it’s liberating to think of the process in a less hostile way, that everything is as it should be, growing into itself. I hope you find something inspiring in this poem, whether it’s for your writing or some other area of your life.

 

A Seed Thought by W. Timothy Gallwey

When we plant a seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as ‘rootless and stemless’

We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed.

When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear.

We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development.

The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies.

Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly alright as it is.


Peeling Away the Layers

How much of a character’s backstory should a writer know?  I’m not talking about the main character whose history, even though not always a necessary part of the story, is something you would have in your mind.  I mean the secondary characters.

I’m in the process of re-writing a large portion of a novel and found myself drawn to a secondary character whose role in the story is key but limited.  But then I got wondering about her, about her relationship with her dad (who is also a small character in the book).  Who raised her?  When did she first decide to turn her back on her legacy?  I wonder if this is how it starts when authors write short stories about characters in their novels because I can totally see a short story in the works for Gabrielle.

But what I found when I resumed writing her scenes is that the whole backstory question added a component to her that I had been missing.  She took on new life.  All the questions about her that I’d figured out in my mind, even though what I reveal to the reader is only ten percent of what I know about her, filled her out and made her real.

I do character profiles, internal and external, for the main characters in my stories.  There are lots of details about these people that you may never need but when it comes time for them to make a decision, even if it’s as simple as what they order in a restaurant, it helps to know them inside out.

But I get lazy when it comes to the other guys, the minor characters.  My light bulb moment may have changed that.  Even if it’s not a full blown character profile, I think I will be spending some time with all the faces in my book to look into their backstory, peel away their layers, so that they are real each time they hit the page.