Everyone has a story or many stories in them and each story can engage, emotionally move us or be disturbingly boring. The difference in each is in the telling because I believe boring stories don't exist. The storyteller is the vehicle and like all vehicles, it's how you use the controls and how you navigate the road that determines whether you are a good writer aka a good storyteller.
I like to write and I like to learn and that drives me to read and watch presentations on how to tell a good story. How many articles have I read and what makes any of them useful? They're all useful to me. How could that be? Simple. I never expect very much from any of them. If I get one bit of anything from one, it's all I need. They don't have to push me to greatness or give me a formula for the great American novel, just a crumb and I'm satisfied. All of them provide crumbs at the very least.
Today, I watched two complete TED Talks and bits of two others. As a result, I returned to a practice I used decades ago; writing the first line. When I worked at trade magazines as an associate editor, I had the luxury of preparing for an article for at least a month. During that time, I churned that first sentence over and over like pebbles in one of those rock tumblers. I'd go to lunch each day, and I'd be going over that first sentence. riding the bus home the sentence was on my mind. It never left me. Once I had that sentence, it all fell into place.
Over the past two years, I've written over 100K words of a novel, my first. Full stop here. I haven't worked daily or even weekly on the novel so two years isn't an accurate description of how I write. But today after two drafts written over that time, I got a crumb for my first sentence.
One of those presentations today pulled that useful tumbling tool from my memory banks, polished it and I now know how the novel will start. Well, at least at this writing I know how it will start. Yes, it may change, but my perspective on it and how it plays into the fabric of the tale is there.
Another thing I've learned is that I know a lot of the information being provided. The presentations were reminders and reassurance, too. I must, also, tip my baseball cap to Margaret Atwood for her wonderful writing course I took online. No, I have to admit I did none of the homework and that may be a mistake, but her videos were enough.
She acknowledged that there are no sure ways to write a story with only one point of view; something I like very much. The concept of a frame story with multiple POVs was unfamiliar to me. Now I know I'm not committing a dreadful faux pas because that's what I've used in my novel. Another thing she reassured me about was that I can have that wonderful mix of omniscient POV and get all my characters' thoughts and feelings any way I want them. Yes, thank you, Margaret, you are wonderful.
Prior to Atwood, I had watched some of the most bubbly and annoying young women tell me how to do all of it and I was getting offended. Okay, I have to conquer passive voice, but does everyone have to do that? Is it a golden, unbreakable rule of good writing? Do all great writers make sure they have that right or do they leave it to their grammarian editors?
Was Carson McCullers or Truman Capote really wracked by the insecurity that passive voice seems to convey to the reader about the writer? How about Virginia Wolfe, Philip Roth, Herman Wouk or Sinclair Lewis? Am I stretching here? Maybe. It's my current bête noire and I'll bet people attempting to master English find that to be the case, too.
Years ago, I sat in a room for a mental health seminar. Eagerly, we watched the videotape documentary lead us through the tales of simple people in the clutches of a mental illness. I'll never forget one woman.
The story she told was of her mother, an African-American woman, who was poor but she wanted to write. Paper wasn't in her meager budget, so she took those brown paper shopping bags supermarkets used for groceries. Unfolded, they provided her writing paper and, with a wooden pencil, she began to write poetry. I can't remember whether they read any of her poetry to us, but I stand impressed by her utter determination to write. Through that illness she made a joyful noise on paper that gave her pleasure in a world seemingly devoid of it.
I'll go on looking at videos and reading all the writing tips that the bloggers pass along. But I'll also go back and watch those Margaret Atwood videos I have on an external hard drive and I'll be reassured, once again, that writing is a very permissive practice and rigidity should not be the taskmaster some would have us believe.