Thursday, July 25, 2019

Idea Vs Story

Sometimes when I would try to write a new story, I'd come to the conclusion that there was something wrong with me, or that something had gone haywire with my skillset. I would have this great idea for a book, sit down to work on it, and hit a dead end. And I mean DEAD end.

Then I went and heard David Morrell speak and he talked about the concept of practicing writers being able to distinguish between what was an idea and what was an actual story. And the lightbulb went on. Mr. Morrell explained that not every idea, no matter how wonderful, shiny, or enticing it may seem, is meant to be expanded into an actual book.

That helped me a great deal. Like most writers, I have a manuscript or two lying around that will probably never see the light of day. We work on things and love them through to completion and then realize, well, this one probably isn’t going anywhere for any number of reasons. But I also have several unfinished manuscripts and stories lying around that started off explosively and then fizzled out and died. And those are the ones, as I look at them with a different eye, that were always just ideas. Brilliant maybe. Even dazzling. But not full-blown premises that could support a full story.

I guess there are probably writers out there that will disagree with this, and they may be right. Maybe it is possible to take every single idea that pops into a writing mind and turn it into a workable story. Two things occur to me, though: if the idea doesn’t want to get dressed-up in novel-length regalia, why fight it? Also, just because I can, doesn’t mean I should. Have you ever read a book and thought, why did the writer write this in the first place? I have wrestled through my share of somewhat dubious reads and when I finish the last page and think that question, I always conclude that the book was based on an idea that wasn’t really meant to be a story. The writer was skillful, persistent, or maybe just plain stubborn enough to force the issue, and there you have it. A book that is complete but also begs the question, “Why?”

The good news for me (and other writers like me), though, is that writers are the ultimate recyclers. Someone said or wrote that once, and I’m stealing the phrase. How many of us have pages and pages of scenes, dialogues, notes, and character development sketches that have never been used? And how many of us are saving them because we know that sooner or later, we will have need of just that very passage? We’re very much like quilters who hang onto those colorful pieces of fabric because sooner or later they will fit into a bigger, gloriously vibrant project. At this point, I can either have a garage sale of ideas and story snippets, or I can continue to hoard until I find a proper place for each one of them. Trust me, I’m a hoarder when it comes to this. After all, part of the trick of writing a novel is recognizing those parts that don’t actually belong to the work in progress; they belong to a future work in progress. So I save them, believing that sooner or later, each and every one of them will see the light of day.

Writing novels is a weird enterprise. We dream up entire worlds and invite others into our ethereal structures, convincing all those who enter and stay with us that they are in a real place, sharing the adventures of very real people, and joining in the action every step of the way. But a novel, one that can swallow a reader whole, is based on an idea that was strong enough and versatile enough to don the garb of a full-fledged story that can take readers by the hand and show them an entirely new landscape.

Writers dream dreams and build worlds for others to enjoy.

And if I think about writing this way for too long, I’ll freak myself out and probably never touch the keyboard again. A writer may work that kind of magic, but this writer thinks of herself as someone who, well, just likes to play with words and ideas, to make up a story. Or to hoard.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

This Writer's Goal (At Least, One of Them)

One of my heroes, Stephen King, once wrote something to the effect that a great pleasure of his was having the opportunity to scare the living daylights (I believe he used a slightly less-polite term) out of his readers. Having been a horror movie aficionado from an early age, he surely realized what he wanted to be able to do with his work even when he was just scribbling stories as a kid.

I wrote my first full-length novel in high school. Oh, I had played around with short stories to start with in grade school, tried for an honest-to-God murder mystery in eighth grade that amounted to 40 pages, typed, at one-and-a-half space between lines, with no margins to speak of because I didn’t know any better, but was a whole lot of fun to put down on paper.

And then I decided to try a full-length kids’ novel. I wasn’t influenced by S.E. Hinton, which may have been a good thing. She might have given me a bout of paralysis, having published successfully at such a young age. But I was heavily influenced at the time by John Knowles, Rudyard Kipling, and Alexandre Dumas. I didn’t worry about them – two of them were already gone from the world, and the other was an adult so there would never be any connection between us.

Clearly, I have never been a fast writer. The book took me three years to produce before it spent my senior year of high school being passed around by my classmates until it wound up in someone’s trunk and I had to track it down. I never came up with a proper title for it; still couldn’t even if I tried today. But I learned a lot while working on it. The story revolved around two friends, two boys in high school, and the evolution of these original characters laid the groundwork for my other two guys, Philip Corts and Jake Holdridge.

And I also learned what one of my writing goals was: I wanted to write something good enough, or at least touching enough, to make a reader cry.

And I had success with my first try. That would be my sister, who always read everything I wrote before anyone else. She cried when she read it and, as strange as it may sound, I was thrilled. To put this in perspective, my sister has a very soft heart and will weep at TV ads if they’re done the right way. But I still considered this a big win and I knew from then on, I’d want to be able to write stories that would have that effect on every reader.

I highly doubt that anyone can write a story that will affect every reader the same way, i.e., draw each and every reader’s tears. Well, there’s Bambi. But that aside, I knew what I wanted to be able to do. I wanted that to be my power of the pen: to make readers cry.

And then I had to figure out how to make a reader cry while reading a book about the paranormal, an even trickier goal since I knew I wanted to write ghost stories. But I believed it could be done. And actually, I believe I may have done it at least one or two times. I had someone who was not my sister tell me that Saving Jake made her tear up in at least two different places. I’ve had people tell me that certain scenes out of the Bridgeton Park Cemetery Series have made them shed a few tears. To tell the truth, I’ve even cried a bit while writing some of those scenes. I know you’ve already seen the Robert Frost quote I love, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

On a related note, the first time I saw the movie "Romancing the Stone," I was struck by the scene where Joan Armstrong (played so well by Kathleen Turner) hands her latest manuscript over to her editor and says “Read it and weep. I always do.” Whoever wrote that part got it absolutely right. I like to think I’m in good company.

Stephen King and I don’t have goals so very different from each other. He wants to scare. I want to draw tears. In the end, we’re both just working to make readers care enough about our characters that we provoke a desired response. I know for sure he’s got it down. I’m still working on it, and I’m okay with that.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

When the Scare Just Isn't There

Sometimes when I’m trying to get a story going, I’ll pick an object that in itself is not scary, but for some reason is a good jumping point for a scary tale. A mirror is a good example. So is a window, a doll, or a gravestone. On a slightly lesser scale but also good for potential goosebumps is a door, or a candle.

Those are things that can be seen and touched. Then there are the things that can be heard: footsteps, a creaky door, a growl, a scream. All of these can also be good for generating a chill or two.

But sometimes, even using something from my “A list” —take a doll, for instance— I can’t find the scare to write about. Okay, Ophelia, I say to myself. What can be scary about a doll? Well, perhaps it can move: open and close its eyes, turn its head, change its pleasant plastic expression to something nasty and malevolent. Or maybe it can really move, like jump off the shelf and walk over to me. YIKES. That is a terrifying thought. But terrifying as it can be, that’s still not a story. It’s just a thought.

Trying to put that thought into context, into an actual tale, can be both tricky and frustrating. I’ve had occasion to be working on stories about various disturbing items, but my brain is tired and lately, after finishing a story, I’ll look at it and think—well, I’ll be polite here and not include what I actually think. But it can be very discouraging.

If one thinks about dolls and scary stories, one begins to realize that there isn’t much that hasn’t already been done. Chucky and Annabelle come readily to mind. Then there’s the clown doll in Poltergeist. Some of you reading this will no doubt remember Chatty Kathy from The Twilight Zone, who for my generation, is probably the mother of all scary dolls. Even the X Files covered this with an episode written by none other than Stephen King himself.

Mirrors are terrifying because everyone who has any kind of affinity for the paranormal is convinced that sooner or later, they will look into a mirror and see someone else looking back at them, whether a reflection of someone looking over their shoulder, or perhaps a face in the mirror itself. And there’s the whole Bloody Mary urban legend thing, as well. It didn’t help that Victorian people insisted on covering all the mirrors when someone died, one explanation being that they didn’t want the dead person’s spirit to get trapped in the mirror. There’s a cheerful thought. J.K. Rowling put a nicer spin on the subject by creating the Mirror of Erised, but even that was still both eerie and at times, in the books, disturbing.

And then there’s windows. Saki covered that topic in an unusual way with his “The Open Window.” I love that story. And I think I recently brought up the old book/movie The Sentinel that features a blind priest sitting at the window. People see all manner of frightening faces peering at them through windows, whether from the outside looking in or vice versa.

So I struggle to find a way to tell a scary story about such everyday objects that hasn’t already been told, and about a hundred times better than anything I could write myself. On the other hand, conventional wisdom says that there are only seven (or is that 36? I can never remember) basic plots possible and that all stories fall into one of those categories. It boils down to how the tale is told.

When a really good scare occurs to me, whether about a doll, a window, a door, or maybe a disembodied scream, I fall in love with the idea and the words appear on my screen by magic. But sometimes the scare just isn’t there. Then I go find comfort in someone else’s tales until I find a way to frighten myself anew.