Sign up for my newsletter to be among the first to learn of upcoming titles!

Archive for Storytelling

Storytelling

When My Best Friend Didn’t Want to Be Friends Anymore

Amy and I were as close as friends could be.

As a kid, I had a close friend, the kind you send BFF messages to on cheap gray school paper when you’re supposed to be listening to the math lesson. We’ll call her Amy since that was her name. Amy and I attended a small elementary school, with only one class per grade, so we were together every year. She was more of a tomboy than I was—good at athletics, never wearing dresses or skirts, her hair styled short like a boy’s might be. We shared a love of scary movies, junk food, and imagination games. She was my only competition when it came to academics. We were the smart kids, constantly measuring ourselves against each other to see which one might be better. If there was any kind of school-related competition that required more brain than brawn, like ‘who can read the most books in one month’ or ‘who can spell the hardest word,’ either Amy or I would take home the title.

 

Pictures of us back then show two girls with their arms around each other, dressed up in homemade costumes for Halloween. Or the pair of us running into the distance, preparing to roll down some enormous hill. We spent every minute we could together, right up until we didn’t.

 

The change started when we were eleven and entered middle school, which was filled with older, tougher kids. Amy decided to overhaul her image. She permed her hair and started wearing short skirts and heels. She downplayed how smart she was. I didn’t recognize her anymore, and increasingly, it seemed she no longer recognized me either. We didn’t sit together at lunch. We no longer talked on the phone. Still, I considered her my friend and hoped we might rekindle our relationship. I invited her to my twelfth birthday party. To my wonderment and delight, she said yes.

 

I felt the old thrill when she agreed to come. It would be like the old days, the two of us making stupid jokes and stuffing ourselves with cake and candy. I’d been wrong to read her chilliness at school as anything personal. She still saw me. She still cared.

 

The party was a small affair, just a few friends and a cake at my house. The minutes ticked by and Amy didn’t show. Maybe she forgot, I told myself. Maybe she got sick. I would have to call her afterward to make sure she was okay.

 

Then more than an hour into the party, our doorbell rang. I ran to answer it with hope in my heart, the rest of my party guests hot on my heels. Sure enough, there was Amy on the other side. But she wasn’t alone. She’d brought along a couple of her new friends, popular girls with teased hair and thick makeup. I’m convinced they didn’t even know I was alive until that very moment.

 

Awkward and stammering, I invited them all in for cake. They didn’t move past the entryway.

 

“Here’s your present,” Amy said, thrusting a drug store bag at me. “I can’t stay.” She may have even said sorry. I can’t remember. What I do recall with searing clarity is how humiliated and awful I felt in that moment, how stupid I’d been to misjudge our relationship. Amy wasn’t my friend anymore. She hadn’t been for some time. I’d just failed to realize it.

 

I got the message that day. My mumbled thank-you to her as she and her new crowd departed from my mother’s kitchen were the last words I spoke to Amy, or she to me. True to her new identity, she no longer took classes with the smart kids, not even when we got to high school and there were lots of us—some of whom were even popular and cool.

 

I wonder about that moment at my party and what Amy’s point-of-view might have been. Had she felt pressured to say yes to my face when she didn’t ever want to come? Had she wanted to come at first but then her new friends convinced it her would be uncool? Did she just feel sorry for me, this person she was leaving behind on her fast-track to middle-school stardom? My guess is that Amy doesn’t have any memory of this party. Maybe she has some alternate moment of truth about our shattered friendship that I’ve completely forgotten because it was not significant to me. Perhaps she glimpsed a ragged stuffed animal in my locker. Maybe she sized up my hopelessly unfashionable clothes. She would have seen that I didn’t have the tools or vocabulary to be the kind of person she was becoming; indeed, I never would.

 

I think about turning points like this in relationships, and how momentous shifts can sometimes be one-sided. Amy wasn’t trying to be the villain in my story. She just wanted to survive sixth grade. I think about people’s attempts to reinvent themselves and whether that’s entirely possible. Was the Amy I had known and loved still in there somewhere, or did she have to be killed off for Amy to transform? I think about these moments of sudden clarity, how dizzying they can be. How they leave a brand on your memory that feels hot to the touch after decades have passed. I think about how they make for great storytelling, and how we as authors search for these moments to bring our characters to life.

 

I think about Amy.

Storytelling, Writing Advice

What I Learned from Fanfiction, Part I: Gatekeepers

Lo, many years ago now, I wrote a fair number of X-Files stories and put them on the internet for others to read, enjoy, and critique. The stories were tremendously fun to write, and along the way, I learned a great deal about the craft of writing and how to reach an audience. One day I will tell you about the time I missed the ending to my story by about nine chapters. Today I’m here to talk about the relative benefits and drawbacks to gatekeepers. A gatekeeper in this sense is anyone standing between the writer and her potential reading audience. Fanfic has essentially no gatekeepers, whereas the traditional publishing world is full of them. Each approach has its own advantages.

Fanfiction has no barriers to entry. If you have a story you want to tell, you can type it up and share it with the community in a matter of hours. The downside to this, especially for readers, is that many stories are published before they’ve had time to cook. (“Hey y’all, here’s something I wrote in homeroom!”) It can be difficult to find a quality story among all the noise. The upside is that everyone with a cool idea gets to test it out; there is no gatekeeper to say, “Sorry, there’s no audience for that” or “Shapeshifting aliens are so last year.” The readers get to vote with their clicks and their comments.

I learned a ton about storytelling from The X-Files. One lesson was when to walk away because the story was finished…

Traditional publishers have the same problem as fanfic readers: they want to find the good stuff so that they can put it on the shelves, but the sheer volume of manuscripts coming at them means it’s difficult to sort the quality manuscripts from the ones that are ill-suited. So the publishers transfer the first-pass filter onto literary agents. Most often, if you want a traditional publisher to read your work, you first must acquire an agent. The agent is the first gatekeeper.

If you’re curious what that process looks like, you can go here to see several examples of the query letter, in which the author tries to convince the agent to take a look at his or her work. The agents have weighed in with their responses—and they don’t always agree!

If the agent likes your work enough to represent it, he or she will then try to convince an editor to take your book on. The editor becomes the next gatekeeper. Editors, if they like the book, then turn around and try to convince the publishing house to publish it. So yep…that’s a third round of gatekeeping. If your book manages to get past all the steps, it now has a shot at connecting with an audience. Yay! You’re not done with the gatekeepers, though, because there are still booksellers who decide whether to stock it, publicists who decide how much attention to give it, and reviewers who decide whether to offer any commentary. Whew!

The benefit to all of this is that the process weeds out most of the terrible books with hackneyed plots, wooden dialogue and horrible grammar. The writer also receives a certain amount of “street cred” for having made it to a bookshelf. Moreover, this filtering is a boon to readers. Tens of thousands of books are published each year, and readers have precious little time. They are looking for cues and advice that says, “Read this, not that.” The agents, editors and publishers have done the work to say: here are some excellent books. Choose one of these.

The downside is that this process starts way back with just one or two opinions acting as a go/no-go signal on a book, and these opinions aren’t always right. The agents and the editors may miss books that readers would love, if only they got a chance to see them. For example, romance novelist Rosalind James wrote to several dozen agents seeking representation for her work and was initially turned down by every one of them. So she decided to self-publish her books and has sold thousands upon thousands of copies. The gatekeepers standing between Rosalind and her audience were just plain wrong.

With fanfic, I acted as my own gatekeeper. The only metric I used was whether I thought I would enjoy writing the story or not. Each time, I wasn’t sure how the story would be received. Some were wild hits, popular even fifteen years later. Others were rather duds. I couldn’t have predicted which would be the winners during the writing process. I put the story out there, and the readers got to decide.

So there you go. Writers may not have any idea if they’ve crafted a compelling story. Agents might mistakenly pass on the next bestseller. Readers, though, are the ones who sit in final judgment, and they are never wrong.

Storytelling, Writing Advice

How to Write a Book

Preparing to write a book can be a daunting progress. It gives me the sweats each time. How do you even know where the beginning is? What if you can’t find the end? And, curse it all, what the heck do you put in that big empty middle? Some writers are plotters, meaning they construct detailed outlines for each chapter before they start the story. Others are pantsers, meaning they make it up as they go along—flying by the seat of their pants. I am somewhere in the middle. I’ve found if I write a detailed outline ahead of time, I won’t write the actual book because there is no surprise left in it for me. However, I do like to have a loose roadmap so that I can see where I am going.

There is no one path that a writer must follow. The best techniques are the ones that work for you.

When I am starting a new book, I picture myself standing in front of a long wall filled with doors. I could choose any door! Eventually, I pick a beginning, and that means choosing one of the doors. Once I go through it, I have a new wall in front of me with fewer doors, because the possible directions of the story have been constrained by the place I began it. So I pick one of these new doors and go through it to advance the narrative, and in doing so, reduce my choices for the next chapter even more. By the time I get to the end, if I’ve done my job right, there should be only one door. It’s marked THE END, and it’s the logical conclusion to everything that’s come before it.

I also subscribe to the Alton Brown theory of scene construction. Alton Brown has a rule that every tool in the kitchen must serve multiple purposes. No point in having a juicer that only does lemons, for example. Likewise, a scene in your book should ideally have multiple reasons for its existence. Here’s a short scene from something I wrote ages ago:

James Dean Trumbull had, at age thirty-nine, outlasted his namesake by a good fifteen years.  His mother had fallen in love with the fifties film idol’s tragic, romantic saga, and since Jimmy’s father was not around to dispute her name choice, James Dean had been reborn in a Hoboken hospital in 1960.  His mother was a great believer in karma, and she had felt the previous James Dean was cut down before he could achieve the successes due him.  By christening her son in the dead man’s name, she truly believed that fate would pick off where it had left off, and Jimmy would enjoy a magic carpet ride into history.

Forty years later, she was still waiting.

Jimmy sat at his cramped kitchen table, surrounded by avocado-colored appliances, and leaned closer to the scanner.  He had a cigarette in one hand and a pen in the other, just in case he heard something worth writing down on his brand-new tablet of paper.

Amy entered the room just as he was blowing out a smoke ring.  “If you must do that, at least go out to the stoop,” she said, waving her hand in front of her face.  She had

her night watchman’s uniform on, with its sensible black shoes, blue polyester pants, and a shiny metal gun hooked to her hip.

“Can’t,” he told her.  “Got to be in here to listen.”

“You listen to that damn box more than you do me.  Sitting here all the time with that radio playing constantly.  What if one of the kids had a nightmare or something?”

“I’d hear ’em.”  He blew out another long train of smoke and aimed it upstairs to where their children lay sleeping.  The police scanner crackled as the dispatcher radioed an armed robbery in progress.

Screw that, he thought.  Get to the good stuff.

Amy’s keys clattered onto the counter as she fished around in her purse for something.  “Well at least do the dishes if you’re going to be sitting here in the kitchen all night.”

“Something big is going down,” he said.  “You can tell.  No one’s saying anything yet, but you can hear it anyway.  They’re all on edge.”

She picked her heavy winter coat up from the back of a chair.  “You think you’re the only one with this toy?  You think there aren’t a hundred reporters out there listening to the exact same thing you are?  And they’ve got jobs, Jimmy.  The papers are going to take their stories over anything you might come up with.”

“That’s why I’ve got to stay on top of this.  I have to find an angle no one else has.”

Amy shook her head as if she had heard this story before.

“You wait,” he said.  “You’ll see.  I’ll get my headline and then everyone will want a piece of me.  I’m going to be an overnight sensation.”  He grinned and reached for her ass.  “You can say you knew me when.”

“I know you, all right,” she replied, ducking him.  She shrugged into her coat and picked up her old leather purse.  “I’ve got to run or McCracken will have my ass.”

“He can’t have it.  Your ass is mine.”

She made a face, but he could see the smile in her eyes.  “There’s leftover cupcakes in the fridge,” she said, leaning down to kiss him.

He’d seen them in there, right next to the beer: chocolate frosted cupcakes with little hearts on them for Valentine’s Day.  Amy talked tough, but she was such a sap.

“I’ll see you at six,” she said.

“Drive safe.”

She left out the back way, into the alley, and cold air stormed in through the kitchen, stirring the curtains and lifting the pages of his writing tablet. A voice crackled through on the scanner. “Five-six, be advised, the suspect has a previous warrant for attempted homicide.”

Jimmy leaned back with his smoke and listened.

This scene introduces Jimmy Trumbull as a would-be reporter searching for a big crime-related scoop. He’s a family man, watching the kids while his wife Amy works, but we can see there are limits to how much of himself he’s willing to give up for them: he won’t go outside to smoke.

The crimes he is waiting to hear on the radio form the backbone of the mystery, but the twist here is that Jimmy is the killer. He’s waiting for the cops to discover his handiwork. Finally, the other player introduced in this brief exchange is Amy’s gun. It’s crucial because the story ends with her using that gun to shoot Jimmy.

All this information is packed into 700 scant words. So that’s my other piece of book advice: make each line work hard for you. With all the effort you’re putting in, the least those words can do is hold up their end!

Storytelling

All I Need to Know about Pacing I Learned from 80s Television

This is truly the Golden Era of television, with inventive hits like Stranger Things, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Orange Is the New Black lighting up screens across the country. Today’s TV has more diverse casts, complex storytelling, and often…a way to skip the commercials. In our household, we DVR most of the TV we watch so that we only encounter ads during live sports events. I don’t miss the advertising, exactly, but I have to say that the commercial breaks during the 1980s TV dramas taught me a lot about how to pace a story. Maybe today’s generation is missing out?

I watched a bunch of those action-adventure/mystery shows back in the day. MacGyver. Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Moonlighting. They all followed a predictable time clock. Top of the hour, we’d get the introduction to the story, usually with a quick hook. Someone turned up dead or in trouble. Maybe there was a robbery or a kidnapping. This is what we call the inciting event. It’s the change in circumstances that sets your story in motion, and it should happen right near the beginning.

We had to get up to change the channel.

After the credits, we’d have that first fifteen minutes of show until the quarter-hour break. During this time, Our Heroes would react to the inciting event in whatever way was appropriate. They’d develop some initial suspects. Look for clues. Right around the first commercial break, there would be some big development to shove the story forward—the kidnap victim is alive! We must find her! Dropping this oomph right before the break is not accidental; the show wants to make sure you stay tuned. Similarly, you want to keep people reading, so you need to make sure that your story has these ‘must keep going’ twists included in the tale.

The half-hour break is longer, so you need to pull out the bigger guns to keep everyone’s butts in their seats during those Energizer Bunny and Avis Rent-a-Car commercials. This means you probably want some bigger twist here, something like the introduction of a new suspect. Maybe the wife did it, not the husband!

Your third quarter is all about subverting expectations and making life even more difficult for Our Heroes. This is the ‘it’s always darkest before the dawn’ sequence, and the part of the story where it looks like the bad guy might get away with it, or that the kidnap victim may die before they rescue her. Things look grim heading into that break at the 45-minute mark!

During the final quarter of the story, things turn around for Our Heroes. They catch a break or find some new evidence and the path to victory becomes clear. In today’s stories, the end isn’t always as clean or simple as it was back on 1980s TV. Our Heroes may get their bad guy but they are altered for the experience. Not every wrong can be put right. Still, most stories close out near where they began: whatever the inciting incident was, it has been resolved, for better or for worse.

That it, the show’s over! Now it’s time for your nightly news…which these days is a bigger horror story than anything Stephen King could ever write.

Did you watch 80s TV dramas? What lessons did you take away?