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.
Yesterday, I found an interesting conversation going on at Janet Reid’s blog. The entry was about memoir writing (beautiful quotes there), and I stopped to read some of the comments. I was intrigued, and I put in my two cents.
A commenter was arguing that all fiction is part memoir. Or, put another way, that everything a writer writes is partially autobiographical. The implication is that every work of fiction bears the author’s real life in it.
I can’t agree to that. For one thing, it means that a writer can only write about himself/herself. So, Harry Potter is really J.K. Rowling in disguise. What would that mean, exactly, for Nabokov and Lolita? Or Robert Browning’s erotically charged (and possibly lethal) Porphyria’s Lover?
While I do agree that writing is informed by an individual’s life experiences, I do not think it’s the only foundational element. For one thing, imagination plays a large role in writing. If I imagine a talking unicorn in a book (The Last Unicorn, anyone?), does that mean I see myself as a rare, endangered creature? Or am I simply trying to tell a story – and I happen to think unicorns are cool? That fictitious unicorn is just that: fictitious. It’s a tool. It’s a way to tell a story. It is a means to an end.
I don’t believe we’re limited to only the things that occur/happen to us (as writers). I know I’m speaking like some sort of collective. I promise, I’m not a member of the Borg. (Resistance is futile! Hand over the coffee!) That, in my opinion, is where research comes in. It’s where historical texts come in. It’s how a writer can fill a plot hole or flesh out a character. (That imagery always creeps me out. Flesh OUT? As opposed to what? Flesh IN? Ick.) It is a large part of historical fiction, where the gaps are filled in with truth via research. For instance, Deanna Raybourn’s and Michelle Moran’s novels.
The beauty of fiction (and I hope this isn’t a trade secret) is that it isn’t true – but (good fiction, effective fiction) rings true. It’s why internal struggles resonate with an audience. It’s why people still root for the underdog and for Good to triumph over Evil. I think that if all we wanted from fiction was truth, we’d read non-fiction.
What do YOU think?
I have very little tolerance for anyone who makes a joke out of tragedy (Gilbert Gottfried, anyone?). Or, rather, who attempts to mock a tragedy. Humor is great. It’s a beautiful thing, and it often gets people (myself included) through hard times. But it should never be at the expense of someone who is suffering — or who suffered.
Let’s say someone died. You can say that everyone saw it coming. There was an illness. It was apparent, unavoidable. Not a matter of ‘if,’ but of ‘when.’ No amount of shouting ‘get off the tracks’ would’ve helped.
This person dies. No one can say, “Oh, wow, surprise!” But does that make the death any less painful? Does it lessen the gaping pit in peoples’ lives? Does it make the tears go away?
No, it doesn’t.
Now, let’s name the disease. If I called it cancer, it’s a tragedy. A horrible, messy awful blight. But what if I name the cause as…addiction. Drugs, alcohol. Even when a person gets clean, these things leave a mark — a physical mark and a personal one. It’s like trying to outrun your own shadow.
Addiction can kill you, even when you stop doing drugs. Even when you no longer drink. It does damage. It hurts your heart, your liver. Bad choices don’t disappear simply because you WANT to get better.
It’s the same with eating disorders. A person can be in recovery. A person can be getting healthy, eating, and taking care. But the damage may already be done. A heart problem may already exist.
So, someone died. Yes, I’m talking about Amy Winehouse. Yes, I know many people have written beautiful things about her and her talent (Russell Brand, Kat Howard and Amanda Palmer, respectively). Whatever you might think about her life, her death is a tragedy. It is a loss, plain and simple. Not just of talent — but of a human life. Snuffed out.
When you disrespect the dead, no matter the reason, you also disrespect the living — the people left behind. And in doing that, you might hurt yourself, because it shows a lack of compassion, a lack of decency. I’ve seen a lot of that on the internet, lately. I’ve seen a lot of easy jokes and misplaced humor.
It makes me sad. It makes me question your character. There’s no acceptable reason to belittle someone’s death. Life changes, always, in an instant. Don’t lose sight of that. When you do, you lose sight of so much more than you know.
“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”
— Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking)
I’ve written my last words for you.
I scribbled them in pen, willing them permanent,
creating them, carving them out of memories
that are, at best, half mine.
I put them in the freezer, next to someone else’s plums,
behind the peas, on the shelf above
the In Case of Emergency Chocolate.
I wanted to preserve them.
I wanted to be rid of them.
I wanted to bury it all, unless
I changed my mind. It seemed, then,
an elegant solution.
Next, I changed the sheets. I drank
the vodka that was nearly too cold
to swallow; I plucked out all the odd reminders
of not-love, half-love – that plaything
you called your heart. You never used it properly.
I don’t suppose you could even feel the difference.
Who loses, now, then? At this final hour.
When the world’s in flames, and I’m holding
not just a match, but gasoline – combustion
threatening to spark my smile. Do I dare?
Always, darling. You know that.
But I won’t uncover this again. Some things
aren’t worthy of a Viking funeral. Between fire
and ice, I too often choose fire, a lit litany
of remembrance – but, no more. Ice, ice it is
by default, by de facto committee,
our many different sides fanning out, coming
to colors: accomplice,
the whisper promises, a hiss of revelation
whenever the door is opened,
the icebox offers things
that I’m trying to forget about.
But I’ve written my last words for you.
Again and again and again and again.
Each one freezes with the next,
but the fire, the fire’s always still coming.
It is too hot to think. Or walk faster than a turtle. Or, honestly, do much of anything. I’ve just gotten in from The Outside, where the world is a giant steaming mess.
In lieu of anything that requires brain cells that have not devolved into a helpless puddle, a recipe. It is a turkey burger recipe I’ve adapted from Rachel Ray — because I can never, ever leave a recipe well enough alone. It is BETTER than hers, damn it.
What you’ll need is this:
- 2 1/2 to 3 pounds lean, ground turkey
- 5-10 ounces crumbled blue cheese
- a finely diced (really small) box of mushrooms (cleaned beforehand, of course)
- 1/2 to a whole onion, finely diced (depending on taste)
- A handful of breadcrumbs
- Basil (dried)
- Parsley (dried)
- A large bowl (I use a giant metal salad bowl)
- First, wash the turkey in a strainer. (Yes, you should always wash your meat.) Make sure you squish out the excess water. Otherwise, soggy turkey. Soggy turkey is not good.
- Add spices (basil, parsley, paprika) to turkey. This is all to taste, so just add the spices until you’re satisfied. It took me a couple of times to realize that I really like paprika.
- Toss in mushrooms, onions, and a handful of bread crumbs. Mix by hand. It’s like mixing bread dough — pull one side over until it covers the middle. Repeat, as necessary.
- Once everything is mixed, open the cheese and put in a spoon in it. This way, you don’t directly touch the cheese — and you won’t cross-contaminate it with the meat.
- Grab a handful of the ground turkey mixture. Make what looks like a regular patty. Place it on a flat surface. Form sides, like so: (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Lee)
- Add 1-2 tablespoons of blue cheese in the center.
- Take a small handful of turkey. Make a thin, flat patty. Place on top. Pinch sides together, flattening with a spatula, if needed.
- Repeat with rest of the turkey mixture.
Grill until done. You can also bake them in the oven 375, until desired doneness. Is that a word? No, it’s not. It should be. Personally, I like everything nearly blackened. You can also top these with baked bacon (turkey or otherwise) on 375 for 15 -20 (broil to brown the top for 2 minutes, if you like). Place turkey in a pan (a cookie sheet with a nice lip will do the trick), on tin foil. Easy cleanup. No splattering!
The burgers also freeze very well (wrap, individually, in plastic wrap). Voila! If you have leftover burgers, you can also add a chopped up one to a salad. A good dressing (to me, I like everything spicy) is a balsamic vinegarette with some added wasabi paste, mixed well. *drools*
It is so effin’ hot out. Eloquent, I know. But it’s true. It’s not hot. It’s effin’ hot. When walking to the mailbox, the car, or to take the dog out is this much of a challenge, I get cranky. The heat index is somewhere between Hell and the Surface of the Sun. Even in the air conditioning, I feel as if I can’t cool off. I’ve just made iced coffee, and I put some in the freezer for later (to eat as a coffee icee). It is tasty and procured from the lovely thestrangebrew.net — which has (honest to java) the best coffee I’ve ever had. I’m currently drinking sticky bun flavored coffee, and it’s liquid nirvana.
*ahem* But back to the appalling heat. I’m melting. Worse yet, the animals are wearing fur coats and must be treated accordingly. That means hosing the horse down and making sure the critters are properly cooled off. It also means watering the vegetable garden a bit extra, as well as the fig trees.
Last week, I had a conversation about the heat. This week is worse, mind you, but last week wasn’t exactly a temperature-based bit of bliss. I mentioned that it was getting too hot for me, and the person shot back, “What does it matter? We spend most of our time indoors, anyway.”
*blink* We DO? She might. But I don’t. Granted, I try to spend as much time inside as possible, but that doesn’t mean I never leave the house — or don’t have outside chores. I doubt my dog would appreciation a lack of walking, simply because the black top has begun to ooze like a Dali painting.
Of course, I realize I am spoiled. What did people DO before air conditioning? Fans only accomplish so much. And it isn’t really practical to call out sick to work, only to lounge in the pool, fruity drink in hand.
Today, I will not be cooking. I will probably nuke some turkey bacon on my neat little bacon tray, it will be sandwiches for dinner. Add some nice lettuce and tomato, and voila! Perfection on a too-hot-to-cook summer day.
What are your favorite ways to combat the heat?
I sound wiser than I am, returning
wisdom to the world
one word at a time; it’s all stolen madness,
nothing more than a secret smile
that says believe me.
(You really shouldn’t believe me.)
I took every word
out of my veins. I used my teeth,
and carefully pulled – it was not magic,
just necessity. I had to get it out,
purge myself of things
better left to shadow. I would’ve done anything.
(You really shouldn’t believe me.)
I asked for forgiveness, quietly, eyes
downcast; I’ve heard it’s better
to ask forgiveness than permission. Few people
grant freedom, and that is what I needed.
What did you need? I wonder, still.
I pretend not to care. I sacrifice my best smile
for the cause.
(You really shouldn’t believe me.)
I sound wiser than I am –
but you won’t listen; you don’t
understand me, or the fact
that I hide everything I can; I dance,
but only so you see that I’m okay.
I sing, but only so you hear
that I still have a voice. I pretend
to the limits of this stage –
(we both know that you will).
It’s easier that way.