Friday, September 30, 2011

What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

I am not a natural storyteller. I may have stengths as a writer, but spinning a good yarn is not one of them. Earlier this year, I finished a draft of a novel and much of the criticism I received was along these lines. The story didn't flow well.

I think, in part, this may have been because I was trying to do too much. I had multiple POV characters - one of which was a child - and was trying to tackle themes like faith vs. reason. I can also see now that I didn't clearly identify what was at stake for my characters.

In hopes of learning how to edit my novel, over the summer I read Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham. If you haven't read this book yet, I would highly recommend it. After reading it, I decided that if I am going to keep writing, I better learn how to tell a story. For now, I think this means putting that other story aside, and trying something simpler. I've started another story - one with just one POV character, and, as I write, I am trying to stick fairly closely to the principles I learned from Scene & Structure.

To summarize, Bickham states that there are essentially 2 components to a story - scene, or the part where something happens, and structure, the part where the character reflects on what has happened. According to Bickham, scene and structure usually play out in the following pattern:


-Statement of goal

-Introduction & development of conflict

-Failure of the character to reach goal, a tactical disaster


-Emotion: how the character emotionally responds to the disaster

-Thought- the character reviews the disaster that just happened, analyzes it, and considers a new course of action

-Decision - the character decides what course of action to take to correct the disaster

-Action - the character takes action to pursue the new course of action (goal) and is plunged into another scene

I am trying to implement these patterns in my new WIP. It is harder than I thought it would be, but I find that keeping these concepts in mind is helping me structure my story.

What about you? What have you found to help you master the art of storytelling?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Price of a Good Story

The woman at the gas station knows how to tell a story. She approaches me just after I slide my credit card through the reader, my wallet still in hand. Her frizzy hair is pulled back into a haphazard ponytail, and she looks as if she's been crying. "I'm sorry I look like such a mess," she says to me, and, without waiting for me to respond to this unsolicited apology, she starts into a story about how she's just fled her abusive husband and the state of Nevada, and how she needs some money for gas to get to a safe house somewhere in Idaho. A police officer gave her a dollar she says, and some discount coupons to the Hart gas station down the road. As she says this, she motions to her car. Sure enough, the amount paid on the monitor reads $1.00 even.

I get completely caught up in the frantic urgency of her words. She has two boys, she says, the twelve year old in the front seat and the seven year old sleeping in the back. I think of my own two children at home, and, without hesitation, open my wallet and hand her a twenty. She gives me a hug and calls me sister. As she rushes back to her car, I hear her say to the boy in the front seat that I am a "very nice lady." I watch her drive away, feeling satisfied and compassionate.

It is only after she leaves that I start to wonder about the veracity of her story. I never did catch a glimpse of that seven year old sleeping in the back seat. And I have my doubts about those discount gas coupons to Harts. Why couldn't she have just filled up at this gas station? I wonder. I can't shake the feeling that I have been had. I should have offered to buy her gas, I think, just to be sure that gas was what she was really after, and not my twenty dollars. I should have offered to buy her gas, I think, just to be sure that I wasn't being scammed.

I get in my car and drive home, thinking about the woman's story, hoping it's true for my sake, and false for hers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Thousand Words

Today I went to Glaus Bakery to pick up a cake for my husband's 34th birthday, and there, hanging on the wall, was this picture:

This picture hung on the kitchen wall in my maternal grandparents' home and bore the subscription: "Give us this day, our daily bread." I haven't seen this picture since my Nana died twelve years ago this past July, but, seeing it again was like stepping back into my grandparents' home. I remembered how the picture hung above the buffet against the kitchen’s west wall, next to a photograph of Credence, a beloved German Shepherd who had died before I was born. And then I began to remember other things, and started to catalogue the items in my grandparents house: a bunch of ripe bananas on the kitchen counter, a box of Honeycombs in the cupboard, a plastic bottle of aquamarine Dawn on the sink, and, always, a stick of butter sweating on a dish, translucent, like a yellow ice cube. The kitchen smelled like pure sunshine. There was a cork board in the corner, where slender pins with colorful, bulbous heads tacked down curling Campbell’s soup labels and memos from the Relief Society. There was a box fan whirring in the front room, and the hall closet with a canister of dominoes and a waxy paper cup filled with seashells from a long-ago vacation to California. Nana taught my sisters and me how to hold the shells to our ears to hear the roar of the ocean.

There was the bathroom with the porcelain pink sink and watered houseplants draining in the tub. There was the spare bedroom where we girls played with the typewriter and hid between the wedding and bridesmaid dresses hanging in the closet. There was the bookshelf with the textured orange spines of Childcraft books, and the big, blue comforter speckled with white dots that, when spread out, covered nearly the whole of the living room floor, and then, just as quickly, was folded back up again, like some collapsible universe.

There was the garden, with peonies, ferns, snapdragons, bachelor buttons, iris, and lilacs. There was the narrow space between my grandparents' home and the small rental home beside it, a home that originally had been built in the days when polygamy was still practiced. There was the long gravel driveway, where Nana would scatter breadcrumbs to feed the birds.

There was the whir of the box fan and the weight of a domino in my hand and the satisfying clacking of the typewriter - evidence of a world that was mechanical and gritty, but also solid. And, of course, there was the picture of the man saying grace, and the subscription "Give us this day, our daily bread."

There were the stories, the ones Grandpa told about his childhood, when he worked on the railroad and caddied for F.O. Haymond. As an adult, Grandpa had worked at Stover's six days a week, hauling furniture, but as a young man, he had been the fastest runner west of the Mississippi. There were other stories, too, stories that I didn't learn until I was older. Stories about my Grandpa's Irish father, a handsome Mormon bishop, who had hung himself in the church during the Depression. Stories about my Nana, who had contracted spinal meningitis at fifteen and laid at death's door for a better part of a year before she recovered, and her father, who had died in a car crash when she herself was just a young mother.

Surely, my grandparents were acquainted with grief, and yet, there were stories of our Father in Heaven, and there were prayers offered to Him as we gathered at the kitchen table, "Give us this day, our daily bread," - a refrain at times insistent, at times resigned, but always uttered.

I looked at that picture in the bakery, but in my mind's eye, I was back in my maternal grandparents' home, standing beside my Nana, scattering bread crumbs for the birds across the gravel driveway.