Sarah’s Tool of the Month:
The Great Courses – Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling tips and techniques – Episode 1 – Starting the Writing Process.
I found this in the digital resources of our public library website, and it has been amazing! Basically it’s a lecture series devoted to writing great fiction. I’m only going to go into the first episode of this series, but it’s 24 episodes long and covers everything from characterization, evoking emotion in your readers, developing setting etc.
The lecturer is a guy called James Hynes, who is an American Novelist and who has taught a number of creative writing classes around the country, including at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, The University of Michigan, The University of Texas, Miami University and Grinnell College.
So, the first episode was devoted to discussing how to start your piece of fiction, and how to overcome writers block when you’re faced with a blank page. Hynes suggested that to make the beginning less foreboding, to break the question of ‘how do I begin’ up into three separate questions:
- The artistic question – What is my story about?
- The logistical question – What technical decisions—narrator, verb choice, and so on—will I make?
- The psychological question – How do you gear up—emotionally—to begin?
The lecture explored these questions and how you might go about answering them. He also used a very familiar structure to help with outlining your story in a very basic form. I’m sure we’ve all heard this at some point… the 5 W’s of journalism (who, what, where, when, why). When applied to fiction, it asks the novelist some interesting and useful questions:
Who – Characters, POV, Protagonist
What – What happens? What is your plot?
Where – Setting. How important is the setting to your story?
When – When in history, and, when in the lives of your characters does the story take place? When in relation to the narrator (what tense)?
Why – What are the motivations of the characters? Why are they in this situation? Why also explores the theme of the story, or what you want your readers to learn (why is this important?).
In this lecture, he also gives a definition of plot and story, which I found quite interesting. He defined story as “the chronological list of events”, whereas the plot he said was “story plus causality and motivation.” So, your plot is more than this happens, and then that happens, but also why this and that happens. How the characters got to this point. And, he reminds us that it doesn’t need to be told in a chronological order.
He gave some ideas for different types of openings you could use:
– Description of the scene
– Internal Monologue
– Or a combination of the above.
Finally, he addressed the psychological question in greater depth to try to allay some of the anxiety about getting the first words down. His suggestions were:
- You DON’T need to start at the beginning.
- You DON’T have to know where the story ends.
- You DON’T have to have an outline (or stick to it if you do have one).
- It DOESN’T have to be good to begin with!
I liked this as I felt he was very clear in the way he talked about writing—he gave extremely good and useable tips, but he also encourages writers to use what works for them, and ignore what doesn’t. Hynes acknowledged there is no right way to go about writing a novel, only what works and what doesn’t work for each individual person. I was astounded at how much information was crammed into just this one episode, and can’t wait to watch the rest of the series! I highly recommend it.
Ashley’s Tool of the Month:
Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner
This is a book with 52 mini chapters – each one only about two pages long – that each touch on a different aspect of the creative process. The chapters range from The Art of Boredom, and Getting Feedback to The Art of Melancholy.
Getting Ideas: A Writing Rorschach Test
Note: The Rorschach test is also known as the inkblot test.
Faulkner dismisses the idea of writer’s block (contentious in itself) but he does raise a point that by claiming writers block reinforces the writer’s block. He considers this state as a ‘creative impasse’ or an ‘interlude’. The suggests a number of ways to jump start your imagination.
- Bradbury’s List Making – make long lists of nouns to trigger ideas. Bradbury said everyone possesses tons of life experience, you just need to find a way to bring them to the surface. “Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness…speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves and onto the page.” Faulkner provides a list of nouns that actually inspired one of Bradbury’s books.
- Letter writing – search within your memory for people (real or imaginary) who have passed through your life and have them write a letter to someone (you, their mother, their ex lover etc)
Writing with a Persona
This was an interesting chapter, and I don’t know what I think about it. But, it is an interesting concept. Faulkner says that sometimes ‘you’ (identity, history, expectations) narrows your story instead of widening it. Faulkner talks about how for some people a pen name gives authors liberation. A new voice. And allows you to change your own self-perception. He says a nom de plume can let you write more dangerously, take risks. It allows you to occupy the persona of someone entirely different from yourself (if you want). Faulkner says he’s never published under a pen name, but he has written first drafts under a pen name. Which allows him to write more shocking scenes. Faulkner suggests creating a character (name and background) and writing a poem or a short story by inhabiting this new person and see how it changes your writing.