I’ve been reading George Saunders’ terrific collection of essays about Russian short fiction, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It’s a book about what makes writing good with an interesting limitation, which is that the work held up for analysis is offered in English translation and Saunders doesn’t speak Russian.
Saunders notes the shakiness of the project when he describes the day a Russian scholar visits his classroom to explain how the tale currently under examination reads in the original Russian.
Saunders and his students are flabbergasted to confront just how much of the author’s intent has been lost to them. The jokes! The wordplay! The voice! None of it survives intact. The version of the story they’re scrutinizing for clues about good...
I’m getting a wee jump on the holiday weekend. The first Wood family gathering in a long time has been planned in honor of my uncle’s 90th birthday. Flying on a plane will be involved! It’s all very exciting and heartfelt.
So instead of my usual weekly livestream, I offer you a nice old-fashioned blog post. My inspiration? This quote, which I shared with the Storytellers’ Circle* membership last week. I think you’ll like it as much as they did:
“The best thing for disturbances of the spirit is to learn. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love and lose your moneys to a monster, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what...
This is one of my favorite livestreams to date. Listen in as I unpack my not-so-guilty pleasure of watching makeover videos on YouTube. If you want to apply a soothing facial mask while you watch, all the better!
But here’s what we learn from it all: Story means change. Not just on the outside, but on the inside, too. Call it a spiritual makeover!
We readers (or viewers) come for that transformation. The bigger the change is, the better we like it.
And we we’ll always root hardest for a hero who’s in most desperate need of a shift.
My weekly livestream is on Wednesdays at 1 PM Pacific. Come live and participate! Or catch the replays here on the blog.
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Or subscribe to the YouTube channel here.
When Geppetto made Pinocchio, he began by using an enchanted piece of wood. This gave him a significant head start on the task of making a wooden boy seem so real he actually came to life!
Luckily, we writers have some enchanted materials of our own to work with. There’s no building material more flexible yet durable than storytelling.
But the process of turning mere marks on a page into characters who live and breathe and feel as real — okay, realer — than the people we know in “real life” certainly feels like magic!
How do we do it? That's the subject of this week’s discussion. Some points covered:
Many thanks to Path of the Storyteller follower Jaron for requesting this topic!
My weekly livestream is on Wednesdays at 1 PM Pacific. Come live and...
When, oh when are these writing tips going to serve up some cute cat pix?
Today’s the day, gang. Look at that little orange cutie in the drawer. Cute! Cat! Pix!
It’s a nice diversion, right? But also unexpected. At least, I expect you’ll find it so!
Yesterday I wrote about how important it is to keep both hero and reader informed about where the story’s heading. That promised ordeal at the end of the second act is no surprise. It’s the climactic scene we’ve been waiting for all along.
The ordeal is the destination you tapped into your hero's GPS at the end of the first act, or the very beginning of the second. Now, after all the trials and revelations of that long expanse of middle, the moment has come. The promised destination has been reached. Finally, the story announces, in its perky robot voice, "You’ve arrived.”
And then, something unexpected happens.
That Wizard of Oz...
Sometimes my Path of the Storyteller students get that furrowed-brow look. They’re trying to invent, trying to write well, trying to get to the end of a draft, all the while knowing that many revisions will be in store before the book is “done.”
That’s when we talk about the need to be playful. We’re just making stuff up here, people! We writers have total power over what happens on our pages, and a boundless capacity to invent, toss, and invent again. If we do our jobs well, we will have created something that never existed before. A new story! What could be better? There ought to be much joy involved.
It’s a good writing practice, too. As your story picks up pace and builds in intensity, a few well-placed moments of levity are always welcome. This is where a bit of trickster energy might be just the banana peel you’re looking...
The Hobbit is one of my all time faves. (So is Jane Eyre, which I share as evidence that there’s no need to pigeonhole ourselves, as readers or writers.)
Tolkien’s masterpiece opens with a description of Bilbo Baggin’s home, which boasts a green door with a shiny yellow brass knob in the “exact middle.” The difference between “the middle” and “the exact middle” is everything you need to know about Bilbo Baggins. He is the Felix Unger of hobbits, and that one prissy detail foreshadows all the chaos, danger, and discomfort that is to come.
It’s what I call a detail that’s inflected with character. Inflected details are a subject for another post, but today I want to talk a bit more about middles, and not only middles — the middle of the middle. The exact middle.
In writer parlance, the midpoint.
Today is November 15th, and if you are NaNoWriMoing, you have reached the...
In yesterday’s writing tip, I talked about keeping your hero firmly in the driver’s seat of your story.
But what about all those other characters? If the hero makes the choices that move the story forward, what exactly is the secondary cast of characters doing?
I’ll tell you what they’re not doing. They’re not doing nothing. They’re not extras. In opera they’re called spear carriers — the human set dressing that fills those vast stages.
A story is a designed thing, a work of both art and artifice. Strunk and White remind us that, just like a well-designed machine, good writing ought to have no unnecessary parts — including characters.
Each secondary character must have a necessary job to do, and that job is to impact the journey of the hero. Positively or negatively, there is an impact. Your hero can’t get to the finish line of meaningful change without them.
I love the work of Joseph Campbell and use...
Change is hard.
It takes time.
It takes letting go of old beliefs, old behaviors, old reflexes.
It can feel raw. Like shedding a skin.
A story is a journey of change. Is it any wonder that we writers have to put our heroes through the wringer?
All through the second act, our hero must face test after test after test.
Second acts are the long middles of any story (half the length, or more, of the entire tale). Second acts are the dangerous, obstacle-laden expanse your hero must cross, like the proverbial chicken, to get to the other side.
And every step of that long, treacherous way, the hero learns. Grows. Fails and regroups. Gets braver, bolder. Faces fears, confronts hard truths, and finds herself doing things she might never have dreamed she was capable of.
The middle is long because change is hard. It takes time. It goes step by step.
Let the journey begin!
TIP: Think of the second act as a series of tests that allow your hero to...