Becoming a storyteller

Blockbuster.  Mia’s Songs.  A Dream Away.  Beauty College Blues.  Songs My Sister Taught Me.  From the Edge of the River to the End of the Sea: these are just a fraction of the stories that have been floating through my head since Callie Khouri won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Thelma & Louise.  Lisa L. Day recently asked how I started writing books and became an indie novelist.  The writing came first; no chicken and egg here.  But I didn’t just pick up a pen and start outlining a novel when my eldest daughter mentioned NaNo in 2006.  I’ve been spinning viable mental yarns since 1992, watching Ms. Khouri on the Academy Awards.  If she could write an Oscar-winning script, why couldn’t I?

It’s one thing to want to be a writer.  It’s another thing to have something to say, and I mean plots, stories, tales.  I’ve wanted to write since I was thirteen or fourteen, but the ability to harness a beginning, middle, and end didn’t really hit until I was in my mid-twenties.  Then, as if all of Thelma and Louise’s dramas attacked with force, suddenly I had fully formed story arcs, I had characters, settings.  I had the seeds of what a novelist needs most; inspiration.

Twenty years later, those ideas, and a few of their playlists, linger.  I will probably never write any of them, but vast swathes of notes still exist, especially for Mia’s Songs.  But some, like A Dream Away, are so etched within my soul, I will never forget them.

But how, why, what are those ideas for?  They started as my building blocks, ways to express a story.  Myths and legends were kept alive by spoken words.  Then people could write their images and dreams, then they could film them.  But let’s go back to the middle era, which I hope never dies.  There is a process to coming up with a novel, and the very first aspect is conflict.  Someone wants something; love or power, freedom or death.  Even the most literary of literary fiction has to include something driving the narrator, whether it’s the reason for life or what to buy at the grocery store.  I’m more into angsty tear-jerkers, but the smallest thing can set me off; driving to the beach on Tuesday, I was trilling along to Lenny Kravitz, Kiki Dee (I certainly had the music in me), Madonna, The Partridge Family.  Yes, David Cassidy, who was just a little too old for me to drool over in 1970s teen magazines, but I watched that show every day after school.  “I Think I Love You” is classic ’70s kitsch, but it’s also earnest, determined.  As I was winding my way through Loma Prieta, right off Highway 17, a plot slapped me upside the head; a man and his son are still mourning the loss of their matriarch when at a wedding reception, a woman singing karaoke catches the father’s eye while her DJ tempts the son.  By the time I reached Gayle’s for coffee, I had the back story (the father is a CEO, his son recently split from his longtime boyfriend while the singer left her CEO-ex-husband when he learned that her son was gay), the internal conflict (the singer wants nothing to do with a guy looking anything CEO-like, while her DJ son is fully aware of who the dad actually is, but DJ son is the only one who knows everything), and the resolution (DJ son tells CEO son why his mom isn’t interested in CEO guy, and they plot to set up their parents).  Now, if this is way too convoluted, good.  It’s my story, and I just might write it one day.  But the point is a novel needs the set-up, an ongoing battle, then a conclusion.  Once a writer has the rhythm of those three vital parts within their soul, then it’s a matter of putting all that to a document or on paper.

Then get ready to rewrite that sucker umpteenth times.

All those aged ideas were exercises in learning how to pace a story.  I rarely watch new movies, but I used to, in theaters and on TV, and maybe it’s easier to comprehend timing through visual mediums.  A Dream Away is The Wizard of Oz and Back To The Future set in the disco-saturated 1970s.  Mia’s Songs is Evita in mid-1990s Europe (I came up with that right after moving to Britain).   Blockbuster is a treatise on Northern Ireland ala The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with some Welsh and gangsters thrown in for good measure (but not Welsh gangsters).  Beauty College Blues is Grease paying homage to my nine months at cosmetology school (yes, I was once a hair stylist).  Songs My Sister Taught Me is The Rose played out on Midwestern prairies.  Now, these are very loose comparisons, but I didn’t just learn to plot from reading.  Novels spin far more elaborate and at times lengthy narratives.  Much easier to pick apart what makes a story tick via good movies.

Then it’s a matter of what makes a writer’s heart pound, what genres and themes stir one’s soul.  That is entirely subjective, can only be discovered by writing.  But in my opinion, before a writer gets started, learning how to balance information and tension within a story is crucial.  Even the best writing falls flat if the story is blah.

Now, blah is subjective too; just because I like to read and write angst doesn’t mean everyone does.  But a novel has to make the reader eager to know what happens next; readers need to love and loathe the cast, readers should want to feel that involved.  In this media-saturated smartphone world, a book has to grab an audience, basically by the throat.  All sorts of audiences exist, and some aren’t that big.  But if the story is important to the writer, I’d lay money there is at least one, two, maybe a dozen others who will find it just as gripping, as necessary.  Chris Baty says: There’s a book in you that only you can write.  My goodness, that is so true.

In the next post, I’ll tackle the nuts and bolts of how I started writing.  Then why I chose indie publishing. (Here’s a hint; rejections get tiring after while.)

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