Writers seldom write the things they think. They simply write the things they think other folks think they think. So this is my two cents; one man’s opinion – I think.
I follow a fair number of writers and creators on social media and noticed some of them discuss their creative process a lot more than I do. I’m fairly reluctant to talk about the fundamentals of storytelling and the various projects I have in development (mainly because I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, anyway), but I feel it’s healthy to step out of my comfort zone every once in a while. So here we go.
One of the first things they teach you about creative writing is that there are five basic elements of a story: characterization, setting, plot, theme, and tone (these can vary depending on how big of an alcoholic your instructor is). A story cannot exist without any of them. You can try to remove setting by placing the characters in a void…but then the setting becomes the void. You can try to remove plot by just having everyone standing around doing nothing…then the plot becomes them standing around doing nothing. You can try to remove characterization…well, you get the idea.
To construct a story you have to make a decision about what one of those elements will be and then build up from there. I like to think of a story as a tower and all of these elements are your building blocks to create it. The bottom block is the most important as it will answer the question “why.” Why is this story important to tell? Why do you want to tell it?
Personally, I believe the most important aspect of a story is theme. It is the central tenant to which every other element can rally around. It gives my story a purpose. A punch. That said, it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of stories that don’t start with a theme at all. Comedies, for example, are more interested in tone, as they want to set up a good laugh. Romance novels might be more focused on characterization, as they want to see their protagonist fall in love or triumph over a heartbreak. Sometimes setting is the most important factor, such as in a period piece or a story built around a particular event.
Now even though this first block might be the most important, it is also probably the easiest to develop. Because it’s your “why”, the work is already done for you. It’s your driving force behind wanting to develop a project. The trick to a good story are the blocks that come after. The ones you have to creatively mold in order to flesh out your tale. And it’s not just what you’re choosing to put in those blocks that matter. It’s also the order in which you stack them in. Since each block is built upon the last, if you realize too late that one of those blocks was a bad choice, then the others that came after it will also be affected. This process is supposed to be fun. Writing is a crazy endeavor. People isolate themselves for vast periods of time while staring at a screen, banging on a keyboard, and wrestling with their own thoughts. But we do it because it’s enjoyable! The minute this painful process starts to become…you know…actually painful…then stop, change out a couple blocks, and see what fits better. Maybe the setting should be in space instead of the Wild West. Maybe it should be a horror instead of an adventure. Maybe the main character should be a boy instead of a girl. Or you could just do what I do whenever a story doesn’t seem to be working: add zombies.
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With past books, my inspiration generally came with my dreams. My Guardians series (the first of this series being published by Burning Willow Press) and Wolfe’s Fayt: The Rescue are main examples of this.
There were a few times where I had a generalized thought and felt that it would make for a good book. Those were times where the project got halfway through, and I seemed to lose my inspiration.
When it came to Rip Zulu: Revenant of Retribution, it was a completely different animal. I started to get this feeling; like there was something brewing. My muse was working on something, but it was a vague blurred image; nothing clear or concrete. Eventually, I began to realize a character
was coming into focus, but the first thing I saw were her hair and eyes. Her hair was dark at the crown of her head, but as it fell down her back, it transitioned from a darker purple to lavender, until it moved to such a light purple it was almost white. From there it became a silvery color, like the color of stars twinkling in the blackened sky. Her eyes were lavender.
I knew she would be tall, and then I realized she was six feet tall with golden-colored skin. Eventually the name came to me: Ripley Zulu. The muse kept talking to me, letting me know she didn’t like to be called Ripley, preferring Rip instead.
As I started writing the story, I began with how she was formed within the womb of a star; nourished by the light and heat of the blazing sun. I wrote her plummet to Earth and into the lives of some very significant people. As the story was edited, I was told that it might be better to start the story with action and dialogue. The scene of her growing at a high rate of speed within that star womb was pulled, but it was referenced a few times in the book.
The story began taking shape and form, and while I wrote the first book, ideas for the second book developed as well. I loved the times I could sit down and pour myself into this story, the many character that developed during the course of its evolution, and the setting.
I became very protective of my work, and for quite a long time, I didn’t share with clarity the events and such in the book with anyone. I kept many things very tightly wrapped. After submitting to one publishing company, I quickly decided I wanted everything to go my way without any interference from outside influences. Without even realizing it, I decided I would publish it myself, get the cover art done by an amazing artist (who has this ability to take my vision and bring it to the highest level possible), and give it everything I had. I had it edited by a wonderful and insightful person who set me straight on quite a few matters, but at the same time, she had the ability to see my vision and not try to change my voice.
So far, publicizing has not been as nerve-wracking as I originally thought. I have actually quite enjoyed scheduling events, talking to people about doing book signings, and taking care of the little details that goes into a successful launch of a book. I have learned some important things along the way (thinks I will take into consideration when I’m promoting my next book—The Guardians: Warrior Angels—coming out in July 2019).
If you would like to hear more about my books, release dates, and upcoming projects I’m working on, you are welcome to join me on:
I’ve learned a thing or two about life. I was inspired by something that happened in my daily life, offline life, and decided to share some of what I’ve learned here. I have lived over thirty years on this blue rock. I am an sibling abuse survivor. I am a mother, daughter, and wife. I’m also a friend.
I work hard, sleep barely, and have doubted myself more times than I can count. I have also realized that nothing that can be said in a review or by someone can ever hurt my feelings because I’ve called myself the worse things, said the worse things to myself, or thought the things that have been said before another conceived of them.
If you’re still reading after that then perhaps I have some things to share after all. Now let me impart my wisdom.
- Respect your elders – There is a lot to be learned by those that have gone through it. The things that elder women and men can tell you are truly worth learning from so that you can navigate your own path.
- Music is important – It’s more important than just something to dance to. It can rise you up when you’re down, set the mood, and even help you heal. It has become, for me, something that reconnects me to the loved ones I’ve lost and to happier times.
- The meaning of life has to be overcoming things – We all have survived something, whether we realize it or not. That thing could be something simple or something complex, but we made it through the other side and we overcame it. If there is a meaning to life, for me, it has to be overcoming things. Learning from them is a bonus.
- Trust your gut – Life experience sticks with you in the form of a ‘gut feeling’. Whether you got that experience on the street, the classroom, or listening to the adults and elders in your life your gut will help steer you in the right direction most of the time, it has for me at least.
- Embrace the suck – For those I’ve shared my stories on my abusive sibling, almost dying at their hands twice, and still being the person I am I’ve been asked if I could change anything about my life would I? The assumed answer has always been that I would erase all the abuse so that it never happened. I wouldn’t. Yes, my abuse sucked. It hurts me in invisible ways even to this day, but I wouldn’t remove it from my life. It was something I overcame, survived, and without having dealt with the cards life gave to me I wouldn’t be the person I am typing right now. I’m strong. I’m smart. I’ve based decision-making on the ‘sucky things’ I’ve dealt with. It didn’t consume me fully it became lessons.
- Love, fully, and without regret – Don’t hold back when you feel for someone. Love can be risky, but fully be in the moment of it.
- Enjoy the small things – I’ve learned that even the small things will stick with you. I will remember the first time I kissed my husband, falling over, and him laughing at me right after for the rest of my life. At the time it was an embarrassing situation, but it has become a small happy moment. It was the moment that I realized I felt more for this person than I had previously thought. I still enjoy the memory of my child giving me flowers he picked for the first time. (He doesn’t know it, but I still have one of them saved.)
- Go boldly forward – Wake every morning grateful, but also step forward boldly and conquer it. You may not be given the day after so everyday must be treated as if it is a gift, because it is.
- Pay your bills and prioritize needs and wants – This lesson came after a winter without electricity. No, it wasn’t me that didn’t pay my bills. I paid the bill and got the electric on though. I’m currently not comfortable enough to go into this too much, but it really happened when I was a teenager and it really sucked.
- Enjoy your youth – I laugh with my oldest friend now how as a kid we wanted to be 16 to drive, 18 to be considered an adult, and 21 to drink. With all that we thought we’d be more ‘adult’ that way, but all it did was tick away years we didn’t realize we would miss later on. You’re a child for a shorter amount of time than you are an adult. Being a adult sucks, is hard, but if you are smart about it, enjoy the small things, and love fully you’ll be alright.
I’m still pretty young, I don’t feel it, but I know it. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to learn about life, but these ten things are what I’ve learned so far.
Dear Younger Self,
You don’t know it yet but things are going to be getting easier. I know you’re lonely, feel like a weirdo, and feel as if nothing will ever change, but it does. In the next couple of years you will meet someone that changes the direction of your life.
He will accept everything about you and for everything else he’ll tolerate it because he loves you so much. The feeling will be mutual. In fact, you’ll get married to him a few more years later and have a child. You’re still married and that child is thriving as I type this.
I know…I know…you’re thinking I’m full of it. I remember being in disbelief a lot of the time and having such an overwhelming dreadful feeling. Feeling caged all of the time and simply escaping into writing, it will change for the better. Learning patience is a challenge you’ll overcome and then must teach to someone much more important that will come into your life.
There’s a lot of things that you will simply have to learn and experience, but that’s okay. You haven’t learned yet that all of the bad and all of the good experiences, even people, are lessons to be learned.
You’ll lose touch with a lot of people, but some will resurface. It’ll be okay. I know you need to hear that, it’ll be okay. You have just started to learn things can be okay and have already learned that people come and go in your life, it’s apart of life that won’t change. You will eventually learn those that matter will be around a lot longer and that’s when you will also learn that you’re lovable and worthy of love.
There are dark times ahead. We’ve never faltered when having to face the darkness before, we just never knew that the situation was ‘dark’ at the time we just shrugged things off as ‘just another day’. I won’t go into it fully, how dark things will get because at the age I am now you’ve learned to look for the light at the end of the tunnel and the positive that comes from struggle. There is a lesson in the dark, you will find it, and you will survive even if you felt you weren’t going to.
Love, Your Older Self
What would you say if you could talk to your younger self?
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I haven’t really gotten to sit down with a cup of tea (I have not abandoned my beloved coffee I swear)and dig deep into a book in a long time. I haven’t gotten to finish a book in a single sitting in even a longer period of time, but I got to do just that after the mail carrier delivered to my door a second Christmas in the form of a package with a bunch of books!
I had shared a few of them I had gotten on my Instagram, but one among them was Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen was not shown. I had seen the movie like just about everyone I know, a massive hit with Winona Ryder
as Susanna Kaysen and Angelina Jolie as Lisa Rowe. I knew eventually I would want to read the book.
The book was fantastic. It included her real medical records with her borderline personality diagnoses and other paperwork from her two year stay at McLean Hospital. Kaysen mentions other notable former residence that include, but not limited to: Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles. I enjoyed the point-of-view of the book, directly from her unlike in the movie. You get to read more about what she went through not depicted in the film as well.
Lisa Rowe, in the book, was more devious to me. I suppose that was because the movie, though done well, gave more examples of her coldness and mischievousness. She lit a cigarette in a max security section of the hospital because the staff wasn’t letting them out quick enough. It sure worked! She also claimed to have made a person named Lisa Cody a ‘real addict’.
So much heartbreak throughout as you got to know about more of their lives, but what really struck me was the tales of Kaysen’s own descriptions and situations. She felt there were no bones in her hand, biting it to try and feel them. Even describing it as ‘ape-like’ while going through a dis-associative episode. This isn’t the case in the movie she merely mentioned in the beginning she didn’t have any in her hand.
Georgina was far more forward than I expected, but I loved it. I loved that Kaysen and Georgina remained friends after their stays at the hospital. I did want to know more about what happened to the other girls, but it’s understandable that wasn’t mentioned as this is a memoir and if the author didn’t know we wouldn’t either.
I plan on doing a full film and book comparison at another time.
I am from north east Arkansas. After college and moving around many years I returned to the area. My career was in music and music education. It remains a major interest for me. Science fiction and some fantasy tales held my interests from childhood. I got to view many of the 50’s grade B sci-fi flicks as they first came out. As a teen I enjoyed several of the genre’s short stories.
My writing experience is regarding graduate schools and career needs. My preference is the Chicago Manual style. So, I would certainly urge all aspiring authors to learn the fundamentals of writing/language usage.
Next, writers should expose themselves to the wide variety of styles that exist. I think that, as in my chosen field of music, the more styles you can be versed in the better your chances of success. It hurts nobody to read a poem or two, some old/new style novels and short stories, and folk tales of various cultures. I believe everyone should read some of the Psalms in the Bible. David and Asaph were great in that style and knew how to write expressively.
I told myself the stories I have published several times in my head before I wrote them. Inspiration comes from different places for all of us. I have composed two novels that need revising, of course! The first began with a scene that came to mind while on a long walk during a winter night. Colors and sound often grab my attention. I envisioned a snowy scene of a bright blue flag, the image panned downward to a line of people with a primitive and brassy fanfare sounding. Then I began wondering: who were they, why were they there, where were they, and why? The second book built on the first.
Most places and characters I use are based on who/what I know. My first story, “The Night at Amos James’ Cabin”, is rooted in a family story passed to me by my maternal grandmother.
The second one. “Glork”, reflects my interest in what would happen if alien visitors desired to become Christian. Something would surely go wrong, and it does.
Write so that you show what is happening, rather than just telling it.
Study some history like the events you wish to write about. I can’t imagine writing on warfare without knowing about the World Wars and the Civil War, etc.
Write a lot. Consider it as practice, which everyone needs.
Finally, find an editor you trust, as well as accurate beta readers. Edd Sowder of Burning Willow Press has been such an editor for me, and one of our sons, Ben, is a creative writing graduate and helps when needed. My wife, Cindy, is also a valuable “sounding board”. It is often mentioned to not use family in
such projects, but since mine have the credentials, I do not mind doing so.
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