November 17, 2012

This is the second in a series of posts in which I share a talk I’ve given widely around the USA over the last year or two. I hope you’ll find the posts useful, and before I begin you might like to read the first extract if you haven’t already: Here, I talked about ideas – in particular, what might constitute an extraordinary one (in terms of writing fiction). And again, please remember the very specific sub-title of the talk: The art of creating a great, saleable story and the craft of teasing out its full potential. My aim is to be both reflective and practical; big picture and small picture; art and craft.
So, onwards into Part 2!

After you’ve had your Big Idea – the WHAT IF that might form the foundation of your story – what else do you need?


In other words, a strong ‘emotional driver’, which will propel your story forward and ultimately make it a satisfying and memorable reading experience. Which will turn the WHAT IF of your plot into the reader’s very own, very personal, WHAT IF as they inhabit the world, the characters, the dilemmas, you’ve created. And as your protagonist’s interior world – their dramas, confusions and choices – reflect and illuminate those of the reader him/herself, so that through your story the reader makes their own emotional journey. So that your story ends up having something strongly emotional to say – not didactically, but organically, through the action and characters.

‘What are you trying to SAY in your story?’ That’s the question, more than any other, that I ask my clients of their works in progress. I don’t mean ‘What lesson are you trying to teach the reader?’ I mean, through the power and the thrust of your storytelling, what important new understanding do you hope to open up for your reader by the time they turn the final page? How will you have shed new and unique light on love, hope, family, faith (or whatever), in such a way that they are caught up emotionally in what they’ve discovered and the journey of the heart that they’ve made?

I have said it before and I’ll say it many more times, but this is one of my favourite quotes about writing. I’ve no idea who said it, and I suspect I’ve added my own embellishments, but here it is:
In an extraordinary story, the best stories, we don’t just discover more about the characters (ie, what they look like/do/say) – we discover more about ourselves.

Again: Great fiction makes us discover more about . . .ourselves.

I think the great artist Picasso was saying something very similar when he commented, ‘Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.’

My own reading persuades me on that – and I think yours will too. What personal journey did you make as you read WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech or THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green or THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie? As you read RULES by Cynthia Lord or THE REPLACEMENT by Brenna Yovanoff or WIMPY KID by Jeff Kinney.

‘Er, back up a moment,’ I hear you say. ‘Did you really mean to say WIMPY KID??? But that’s fun and funny; that’s . . . really light.’

Hah yes. But I believe that ‘truth’ can be conveyed through all kinds of stories, for all age groups, picturebooks upwards – and that includes through humour. If you’ve never read TWO WEEKS WITH THE QUEEN by Morris Gleitzman, have a look and see how closely humour can walk with poignancy; comedy with tragedy. It’s all about creating the insight, that kernel of wisdom, which makes the reader sit up and say, ‘I know exactly what they’re talking about. That’s me! I’ve been there – I AM there!’

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the best comedy is very close to pain, very close to the bone. Think about it.

Let’s regroup for a moment:

Where might your big idea, your inspired concept, come from? Your family history, the news, a documentary, a morsel overheard on train or plane . . .? Absolutely. But something else must happen as you process and blend those fragments, because writing great fiction is not simply about, or from, the intellect. It comes from your emotional responses to the world around you.

Yes, your emotional responses to the world around you.

In my previous post I mentioned iconic British author Graham Greene’s quote about stories coming from our ‘emotional compost’. Let’s expand that quote. Greene said: ‘All good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of your imagination. Your past is full of stories that have been composed in a certain way; that’s what memories are. But only when they decompose are you able to recompose them into new works of art.’

Wow. You might want to take a little time with that one. The link between memory, story, and art.

So what about that ‘deeply felt theme’; the ‘emotional driver’ I mentioned at the beginning?

The great writing teacher, Robert Olen Butler, talks about writing ‘from the white-hot center of your unconscious’ (THE PLACE WHERE YOU DREAM/Grove Press/Edited by Janet Burroway). Or, to put it another – maybe less intimidating – way: writing with passion. And I believe that however you subsequently craft it, your story must be drawn from something raw and powerful inside you. Something passionate. Something white hot.

Back in the day, I used to have a band. I wrote songs. I performed a bit. So the image I return to is that of a guitar string. As you pluck it, the string twangs and resonates. As writers, do we twang and resonate as we listen, reflect and take part in the world? How might that resonance affect your story? What do you deeply know and feel – and could you make your reader experience that understanding too?

I also believe that if you want to write with power, you may at times need to look at, interact with, draw on, the darkness within yourself.

What is your personal heart of darkness? Oh, it exists all right.

I know a writer who lost someone very close to them. It was a terrible tragedy. But that individual told me that after writing many manuscripts that didn’t get anywhere, they finally dared to access some of the almost untouchably painful experiences of the past and channel them into their writing. I don’t mean that the specific story was told in memoir-style. I just mean that some of the rawness that surrounded those feelings and events was allowed to percolate into the story in various ways. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that was the manuscript that finally found a publisher. It felt real; there was an intensity.

What is your story? What preoccupies and interests you? Whatever it is, I think that to be a writer it must come out of your head and into your heart – initially, at least. That there must be an intensity in your engagement with your characters, story, world.

One of my favourite words is ‘vocation’. It speaks of a big dream, a big mission.

I know that I have a vocation. To use all my years of editorial and business experience to help writers find their way. At the moment I have no interest in writing a novel of my own. I am the midwife to yours. Sure, it’s a job. But actually it’s a lot more than that; it’s what I know I’m supposed to be doing, and that’s why I’m driven.

I believe that as an author of fiction you also have a vocation. What is it? To deeply ‘get’ the chaos of being human and everything it comprises – the pain, the dilemmas; but also the humour and the sweetness of life. And then, from that understanding, to be able to perceive order and meaning in that chaos – so that you can then use it to create a unique story framework; a shape to the messiness of being human that will ultimately become a new work of art.

Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth. Thank you, Picasso.


In Part 3: Getting practical: You’ve decomposed the memories; turned emotional compost into a Big Idea suffused with (controlled) emotion. Now to plant some seeds (ie, get words down).

Pix: 1) A knife. And an orange. Draw your own conclusions. 2) Greenhouse window during the great Washington DC snowstorms of a couple of years back. 3) My guitar. She’s a beauty; a Yamaha semi-acoustic. 4) The heart of darkness – Vietnam war memorial, Washington DC; shot on one steaming hot summer night.