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.
So, I’ve been working on this project. I’ve decided to self-publish a volume of poetry via CreateSpace on Amazon. (I’m sure I can somehow blame Barry Eisler for that. Or his freakishly perfect hair. *wink*)
This decision took me a while to make. For one thing, I’ve never been a huge fan of self-publishing. I don’t quite know why. I think it was an ego thing. I wanted to be chosen by an editor. I wonder if that stems from years of being picked nearly last for dodge ball. Or kick ball. Or the bane of my high school gym class: baseball. (To this day, I still discard the bat with more force than necessary. I don’t mean it!)
But poetry is notoriously hard to sell. It’s also difficult to profit from. That whole cliché about starving poets? Yeah, that’s pretty much true. This isn’t about making money, although that would be nice. This is about putting the work out there. It’s about not waiting around for someone to notice me. This is me, being proactive. (I’m currently not sure how to price it. I dislike the whole “art should cost .99” philosophy. It was Catherynne Valante who posited that people pay six bucks for a cup of coffee — why the hoopla about paying that much for a book? It doesn’t make sense. Also, as she pointed out, most CDs on itunes are still 10-15 dollars. A single song does not equal a book.)
It’s also rather scary, if I’m being honest. Sure, I have no problem publishing poetry via this blog. However, a whole volume? Out there in the world? It’s a bit daunting.
Like Millay said, I’ll be appearing (shortly) with my pants off in public. (Best quote ever: A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.) I know there will be some criticism. That happens with anything you write or publish. I promise not to have a meltdown. No one will make a hilarious coffee mug (I’m looking at you, Shaffer) in my honor. Unless it’s something like, “Coffee Vampire.” Because that is an actual nickname some people have for me.
The collection is tentatively titled Lines from an Old Love, but I might change my mind fifty more times before it’s done. I hope, when it’s done, you all like it.
My to-do list is getting out of hand. So is my to-be-read list (should that be hyphenated? Oh, well. It is). I have a mountain of things I should be doing. I am not doing them. I am blogging, which will turn into writing. I’d really like to watch Castle, instead, but that is not the mark of a genius.
Yesterday, I had a great idea for a blog – and I forgot to write it down. I committed one of the classic blunders: I swore I’d remember. That never works. Ever. If it was an idea for a short story, novel, or poem, I would’ve written it down. Even if I had to use a permanent marker and write it on my own arm.
Because I’m that hardcore crazy. I suppose that reflects my own personal hierarchy of writing importance, but I’m kind of ticked that I lost that idea to the shores of the Lethe.
My desk looks vaguely like it’s been attacked my a tornado of assorted things. The dishes are waiting for me, and I think they are beginning to grow cognizant. (Stephen King – you hear that? It’s the sound of the shrieking dishes. That could make a great horror story. I promise.)
Last night, I was in the shower trying to remember what it’s like to feel warm. I used to laugh at winter. I used to run around without my coat on in the SNOW. Now, Winter (the bitch) is getting her revenge, and even on the semi-warm days, I’m wearing gloves indoors and whining that I cannot keep my toes warm. Mother Nature, this round goes to you.
So, anyway. In the shower, I had an idea for a book. It’s an idea I’ve been trying to write for years, but I haven’t been able to get it right. In fact, my whole first book (which has been relegated to the Isle of Misfit Novels aka The Attic, where the dolls live) was an exercise in me trying to tell this tale. But I got it wrong, and I wrote the whole thing anyway. Why? Well, that’s complicated. I needed to write it. I needed to write it wrong, too. Because it taught me a lot.
As I was trying, desperately, to wash the shampoo out of my hair (who has time for conditioner? I have begun using the leave-in stuff)…I started plotting. I need to do more of it, and I will. But I had the situation. And the beginnings of a Voice for this book. This was not something I was looking to write now. (I’ve begun a fairy novel, which may or may not be the death of me.) And I might NOT write it anytime in the near future. But this is an idea I wrote down, because I didn’t want to lose it.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t be the only one who hops out of the shower, with shampoo still in her hair, in order to scribble down something that won’t make any sense to anyone else. “Moments. Life. Misha? Russian? Some kind of foreign. Change you life. Mistakes.” But it makes sense to me.
I also can’t be the only person who has run out of places to store her books, but won’t part with them, so they are 1) under the bed 2) on various book shelves 3) on top of the dresser 4) in the attic 5) in the closet (next to the shoes).
What are some of your more quirky habits? Do you write longhand? Do you carry around mini-post its? Jot down notes in Pig Latin?