Home > Random Musings, rejection, Writing > Stories to Tell: From a Poem to an Airplane

Stories to Tell: From a Poem to an Airplane

 

What makes a good story?

The answer is a thousand things. It is also a single thing. It can be anything from the way a character cries to the beautiful way moonlight shines on broken glass.

A good story makes you feel something. Anything. Anger. Outrage. Hope. Confusion. Love. Regret. Excitement.

I say ‘good’ story, but what I mean is ‘effective.’ Because ‘good’ is too vague a term, and it makes me think of banana bread and my grandma. A short story is not banana bread. Or, to my knowledge, my grandma.

The next question is usually, How do you write a story like that?

The answer is easy. It is situated right between Hard Work and Talent. It’s the same answer give by anyone who has ever invented, fixed, or created something (from a poem to an airplane): you just do it. You try. You fail. You try again. You fail again. You don’t give up. You don’t give in.

The secret, I think, is to allow those Moments of Despair. You know the feeling you get when you feel like everything you’re writing is wrong – and you’re one step away from blow torching the whole mess? Shriek. Yell at the sky. Threaten to throw your laptop, cell phone, or Kindle out the window. Rage. Eat chocolate. Find some alcohol.

Watch television. Read a book. And then…get back to work. Because the truth is that half of life is simply this: don’t give up.

As a kid, I thought I could get through anything – a hurtful friend, a bad day at school, being passed over for a chorus solo – if I just put one foot in front of the other. One step, then another. And there it is: progress. Writing is the same. You put one word in front of another. Sometimes, it’s like magic and being drunk – and having a really good laugh. Other times, it’s like visiting the dentist, without Novocain, while your boyfriend breaks up with you via text message. Oh, and he’s been dating your sister.

Easy vs. difficult. Not impossible, mind you. Difficult.

The last question is usually this: Why did you write that?

I could lie to you. I could make up a story. I could tell you that I get my ideas from a tiny unicorn that lives in my My Little Pony lunchbox. But that would totally ruin my Rock Star image. The real answer is: I don’t know. For me, most of the time, I start with an image or a line. Maybe it was something somebody said to me. Maybe it was a memory that a certain smell pried loose. Maybe it was the magic unicorn in my lunchbox. I honestly don’t think it matters, as long as the words go on the page. As long as things are written.

This morning, I sat down and I wrote a draft for a story. It’s unlike everything I’ve ever written before, and I’m surprisingly okay with that. If I start writing the same type of thing over and over again, that’s when all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We all know how that story went.

The best advice I’ve ever gotten is this: don’t give up. The second best is probably: read everything. The third might be: write whatever story wants to be written.

Each short story, each poem, each novel – each piece of writing (complete and incomplete) is a lesson that only you can teach. It’s also a lesson that only you can learn. Not even story is going to be perfect or even vaguely publishable. Some will be complete shit. Some will toil as Really Bad Drafts forever. Some will see character changes and a mountain of post-it notes.

But I’ll say it again: each one is a lesson. It’s a stepping stone, a learning experience. Good stories (effective stories) get rejected. It has to resonate with your audience. Sometimes, that audience is you. Yourself.

Rejection isn’t exactly failure. It’s not a nice day at the beach either, because everybody wants to hear the word yes. But it is what you make of it. It is also what you take from it.

You get what you give. Write the best story you can. Then, write another.

  1. July 31, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    So… I shouldn’t tell anyone about the whole freelance-unicorn-story-inventors, right? Everytime I’m asked about where my stories come from, I think of a scene from the movie Desk Set with Hepburn and Tracy, where he asks her how she remembers everything and she says, “Many things remind me of many things.” If you’re a writer, one chance observation, one stray thought, leads you down a path. I think the intrigue that sets us looking for the story is what makes others want to read what we’ve written. Ack, I don’t know if that makes sense. What I’m trying to say is that if a writer has a passion for their story, along with some writing chops, the story will be a good one.

    • Ali
      August 1, 2011 at 7:31 pm

      Shh, don’t tell! *grin* And YES, I totally agree with you. It’s a way of looking at things. It’s a whisper that leads us down a path. It’s paying attention and making something out of a single moment. What you said makes total sense, and I agree about passion as well. :-) Thanks for your comment!!!

  2. August 1, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    A passion for their story–yes, Gayle! I totally agree. The more I read about the publishing industry, the more convinced I am that to survive, the author has to love what he/she has written. Even if no-one else gets it. Or no-one wants to publish it. After all, how can you hope to sell anyone else on your novel if you aren’t sold on it first? And if you have that passion for your story, you’re going to make sure it’s as good as you can make it, aren’t you?

    Thanks for the post, Ali! This is my first time visiting your blog–I found you via your comment on Janet Reid’s blog. I’ll be sure to read some of the other posts and check back.

    • Ali
      August 1, 2011 at 7:32 pm

      Welcome to my blog, Colin! I’m very glad that you took the time to read and comment. I agree with you. I think a writer must love his/her project. If not, what’s the point? If you’re not sold on it, you certainly can’t sell anyone else. Again, thank you for stopping by! :-)

  3. Jessica
    August 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Thanks for this, I needed it today.

    I’ve been in a bit of a slump, because last week a supervisor, in very nearly the same breath as telling me the pay cut I have to take is no big deal, told me that if I haven’t established myself in my desired field by the time I’m 25, I should just give up, and resign myself to corporate America as an office drone for the rest of my life.

    While logically I know that he has no right to say that, and I shouldn’t listen, there was that little voice in the back of my head thinking “Oh my god, what if he’s RIGHT!?” Thankfully, we have you here as the voice of reason saying Of COURSE he isn’t right, whatever you do, just don’t give up.

    I’m also really glad to see you endorse a mentality that I very much agree with – expressing one’s emotions. I find that far too often, people are uncomfortable with the idea of any sort of outward expression of how they’re feeling. They don’t WANT to cry, or yell, or throw something, especially not where someone might see; they CERTAINLY don’t want to have to deal with anyone else doing it. But in reality, sometimes that is what you need, and it actually DOES make you feel better. You just have to make sure that once you’ve gotten that out of your system, you go about your business.

    • Ali
      August 1, 2011 at 7:35 pm

      You are very, very welcome. Also, I am officially not a fan of your boss (pay cut and an insult? Grrrr). He is so NOT right. I know it’s easy (too easy) to take that kind of thing to heart. I’m glad that you’re not letting that happen. And I am all for expressing things — to feeling them, owning it, and then getting on with life. Wallowing is bad, but so is suppressing everything that might be considered ‘unpleasant.’ Thank you for commenting! :-)

  4. August 1, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Love this post Ali! It’s easy as a writer to get discouraged, but when I look at pieces I wrote a long time ago, it’s clear that I’m continuously growing and learning from my writing. What more could I ask for? Also, I write what I do because if I don’t, the idea just nags and nags in my head like a mosquito in my ear. The good ideas are the ones that grab me and don’t let go until I’ve put them to paper.

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