We are the stories we tell ourselves

boats

Human beings connect through story. We define our individual selves by story. We even define our universe in terms of the stories we tell ourselves.

And despite often sharing experiences with others, my understanding and interpretation of those experiences—my personal Truth—is the story that I build around those experiences.

If I see something I have never seen before, I immediately construct a story. I give it context from items around it or its location or its presence at this time of day.

And remarkably, if I came upon this same thing tomorrow rather than today, the story I construct then might be entirely different from the one I build today.

Thus, story is malleable. It lives and breathes as we take in new information from our surroundings and incorporate that information into the story, making tweaks and adjustments to ensure that everything continues to make sense.

When the story doesn’t make sense, when congruence is lost, we get upset, and in some cases, put up hostile blinders. This is when human beings lose connection.

Because story is such a personal thing, the Creative—whom I define as anyone who pursues a task with passion—is faced with an essentially insurmountable challenge: How do I share my story through myriad personal filters?

Ultimately, you cannot control how another receives and interprets your story.

abstract art

What is my story for this work? What story did the Creative intend?

Even if the Painter tells me her intent in painting a portrait or landscape, the Novelist types out in no uncertain terms precisely what he means to convey, the Musician strikes notes and chords to instill specific feelings, I can remain oblivious to those intents, consciously or un-.

This simply is; and we can only hope that it does not negatively influence the passion to create.

That passion, the drive to create, must be given voice, however; and so the Creative moves forward, doing his or her best to share (much as I am doing now in writing this).

A dedicated Creative struggles on, regardless of the insurmountable barriers, and strives to convey the most effective story he or she can, looking for ways to layer thoughts and emotions and spiritual energies onto the personal stories of others.

We practice what we know. We experiment with the unknown. We seek guidance and critical analysis.

And most importantly, we accept that we will never achieve 100% success instilling our stories in others, and yet push ourselves and our Art as if it were possible.

As Creatives, as people of passion, that is central to our stories.

*****

If you’re interested in learning how to build stories more effectively, seeking guidance for nascent projects or critical analysis of existing works, feel free to check out my website So, What’s Your Story or reach out to me here or via my Facebook page.

In the meantime, I wish you all the success in the world.

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On the page

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Frenzied creativity can keep you from getting all of your thoughts down

One challenge of being creative is that our minds often work much faster than the rest of our bodies can. Ideas can come at such a rate, our enthusiasm for a topic or story can be so intense, that we can find ourselves tripping over our words or leaving out things like nouns and verbs.

When I was much younger, I would see this challenge play out on my typewriter.

My thoughts were so frenzied and my fingers so quick that I would physically overwhelm the ability of the typewriter hammers to rise at the key stroke, strike the ribbon against the paper, and fall back into place before the next key stroke catapulted the next letter. Time and again, I would sigh in frustration as I would stop to manually separate the two letter arms that had become entangled.

But even in the absence of mechanical typing, such enthusiasm can result in conceptual clogging, where thoughts that cross your mind fail to find a home on the page.

Although this happens more in fiction than nonfiction writing, I have read examples in both situations where a writer has failed to include important information about their characters, the plot or even the settings of events. Because we see everything in our heads, because our thoughts move so quickly, we may not realize that we have failed to put this on the page.

When I write a line of dialogue for a character, for example, I hear the character’s voice in my head and I know his or her emotional state, so I hear the intonation that reflects that state.

On a good day, the same information is relayed in the words the character speaks and/or in the actions the character performs while saying those words. (On a really good day, the words spoken and the actions taken don’t exactly align, revealing subtext.)

As often as not, however, I threw down the first dialogue that came into my head or described a relatively generic action to get to the really cool moment a couple of pages from now.

Again, I heard the intonation. I know how the character is feeling. So, in my head, nothing is missing. Everything a reader needs to understand what is happening is found in the black letters that stripe the white screen or page.

 

Am I reading what you’re writing?

Your reader is not in your head, however. She doesn’t necessarily know how the character feels or where the story is going.

She will likely fill in those blanks with her best guess based on what she’s already read, and she might be right.

But if she’s not, if her assumptions are wrong, the moment of realization might be quite jarring, and she may have to drop back to re-read one or more passages to catch up to you.

NOTE: These moments are particularly noticeable if you have someone or a group do a cold-read of your work. The minute a reader starts the line “wrong”, you see (or hear) the potential train wreck ahead.

Any success you had in engrossing your reader and revealing your creative genius dissipates, and has to be newly won in the subsequent pages.

As the reader, if I need – or even just want – to know something to help me understand a character, relationship or scene, make sure I do. Make sure the idea or concept is on the page.

You ultimately cannot control what goes on inside the head of any reader, whether their personal perspectives or attitudes or what kind of day they’re having, but you can do as much as you can to get your idea, your story across with as few filters as possible.

You don’t necessarily have to do this with Draft One – anything you can do to ride the wave of enthusiasm and get Draft One completed takes priority.

But as you transition to Draft Two, Four or Eleven, look for opportunities to be clearer in your intent for your characters and your story.

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Aiming for clarity

How many ways could a given line or sentence be read?

Unless you’re purposefully pulling for subtext Nirvana, try to reduce that number, if for no other reason than the number in your head is probably three to five times lower than what it actually is.

Sometimes, clarity comes in the perfectly chosen word.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron slammed his glass down.”

“Cameron let his glass drop.”

“The glass slipped from Cameron’s hand.”

Sometimes, clarity comes with more information/words.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron gingerly nestled the glass into its condensation ring.”

“Avoiding a fist of broken glass, Cameron lowered his drink to the table.”

Yes, you run the risk of over-writing, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of writing travelogues rather than setting descriptions in early drafts.

I would argue, however, that it is better to cut back something over-written than omit vital information.

And yes, for genres such as thriller or horror, you may want to avoid providing too much information for fear of ruining the suspense.

I’ll talk more about genre another time, but in the interim will suggest that while you may wish to mislead your reader, you never want to lie to them, even by omission.

Once the final reveal is made, the reader should be able to go back and see all the connecting dots. Simply leaving out an important point is a cheat, from my perspective, especially if it prevents someone from making connections.

Misdirect, fine. Leave things open to interpretation, certainly. But never lie.

 

Seeing what’s not there

So, how do you know what you’ve inadvertently left off the page?

Time away helps.

Once that initial energy has dissipated, put the work away for a while. Clear your head by working on something else, and only then come back to it and see if it reads like you wrote it.

Alternatively, as suggested above, have someone (or some-many) read it aloud to you while you sit completely silent – not easy. You will hear every clunk and every reinterpretation of your intent.

And sometimes, you simply cannot see it, which is where people like me come in: experienced story analysts who know the standard or common issues that arise and can not only identify where they occur in your work, but also offer insights or possible fixes.

This is feedback at a higher level than editing – although many of us instinctively edit – and the best story analysts help you find your way of telling your story, not theirs.

Because the story analyst didn’t write your story, they’ll see the gaps or holes much faster and more clearly than you will, and will help you fill those gaps, ensuring that you have left it all on the page.

 

So, What’s Your Story is a story analysis service designed to help anyone tell their story better, whether fiction or nonfiction, long or short, written or verbal. Even if you’re just looking for a quick sense of how well you’ve told your story, we should talk.

Story is everywhere

[First part of a weekly series related to my new story analysis service So, What’s Your Story.]

bookshelf

Even the most esoteric subjects have story, with all the elements of a fictional novel or screenplay…even text books about business or biochemistry or writing.

There’s no story in text books!

Yes, there is.

Only here, plot is less about action sequences and more about the interplay of the different aspects of your subject and the causes and effects that drive your theses or perspectives forward. This can be reflected in the cadence of your descriptions, as you walk the reader through your arguments, leading them to your conclusion.

Likewise, your characters are less about personalities and more a sense of the…you guessed it…characteristics of your subjects. In the broadest sense, the conflicts and synergies between the component parts or ideas of any topic are what effectively humanize the topic, providing a familiarity to the reader or viewer.

Without story, your manuscript or presentation has no narrative drive, nothing to draw the reader or viewer forward. Instead, it reads like a specification sheet or spreadsheet; a series of minimally connected facts and figures that provide information but only to the most intrepid reader.

Story is one of the reasons why you can have hundreds (thousands?) of different versions of the same facts, and how publishers and book retailers stay in business.

So, if you’re working on a nonfiction manuscript or presentation, let’s talk and see how well you are bringing your ideas to your audience.

Reach out and tell me: What’s your story?

Twitter: @createdbyrcw

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/storyanalysis/

Website: [to come]

The Last Word – a short story

library

(A writing exercise in which the first word was “shelf”.)

 

“Shelf seven.”

The words struck David’s ear drums like so many flies on a glue strip, their significance dying almost on contact.

“Did you want the catalogue code, too?”

The glue strips over-burdened, David’s head tilted to one side, involuntarily signalling his very real lack of comprehension.

“Sir?”

David’s irises shrank to pin points, his brain doing its best to pull focus back to the moment at hand. Emerald green flecks glinted in the near spotlight that bathed the librarian.

David fought not to shake his head in the hope of releasing the cob webs that had yet again taken hold of his brain. He wet his tongue, a dry mouth crusting his silence.

“Perhaps you could write that down for me,” he smiled at the eternally patient woman behind the counter.

Despite David’s complete lack of social graces, he was an easy patron for the woman. He knew exactly what book he was looking for, rather than simply presenting her with a laundry list of random words that only may have appeared in the book title or subject matter.

Slowly drawing a scrap of paper from a tidy stack, the woman dragged her pencil in tight arcs and lines. With each stroke, David was certain that he could hear the graphite crack and flake from the pencil’s tip until finally, the room went silent again.

Looking up, he caught the librarian’s eye, which crinkled as she slid the paper across the counter.

David smiled as he swiped the sheet and dissolved into the stacks, leaving behind a rapidly dissipating vapour trail of Old Spice and anxiety.

Moving swiftly down row after row, David had the sensation of being swept along by a rainbow-glittered tornado, the multicoloured book spines flashing by, muted here and there by cellophane wrappers designed to keep fingerprints and legibility at bay.

Despite his knowledge of perspective—a Grade 8 art class quickly coming to mind—the stacks seemed to narrow the further he journeyed into the bowels of the bibliographic beast. And all the air was drowned in the musty thoughts of insistent authors in cacophonic sensory overload.

David’s chameleon-like eyes worked in solitude, taking turns glancing from the dampening destiny sheet clutched between his fingers and the digital tattoos that graced the spines.

His left eye was first to light upon the congruence, a match that was shortly confirmed by his right eye. Binocular certitude.

This was the book.

Taking a deep calming breath that did little more than trigger a coughing spasm, David rubbed his hands against his trouser legs, only to realize he was smearing pulped paper onto his leg. The librarian’s note had given up the fight to remain whole under persistent perspiring assault.

Without being aware of his actions, David flipped the book’s pages through trembling fingers, eyes scanning for familiar references.

The red wagon on Bakersfield Hill.

The mustard-stained tuxedo on prom night.

The tow motor accident at the soda factory.

The surreal night at the library looking for a book available nowhere else.

It was all here, written in black sans-serif letters on egg-shell pages. So alien to see it captured on vellum and yet so familiar to a constantly refreshing memory.

Clearing his throat, David flipped ahead in the book, trying not to glance at the intervening pages, instead saving his energies for whatever he found on the last pages before the Appendix.

David smiled as he struck the back cover and realized there was no Appendix. He’d had emergency surgery shortly after his 21st birthday.

But the smile faded just as quickly as the memory as he peripherally espied the final words of the book to his left.

As though resisting a coiled spring, David turned his gaze upon the final paragraph, his temples literally throbbing with the rush of blood to his brain.

His eyes all but excised the first word. Then the second. Then the third.

Words became phrases. Phrases became sentences. Sentences revealed thoughts. That’s how writing worked.

The stacks rang with raucous laughter. Library patrons became meercats at the disturbing intrusive sound, unable to identify its source or direction.

They remained unaware that in the darkest corner of the library, a man had just learned how his life would end.

An ending, it turns out, that was pretty fucking funny.

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Standoff (a short story)

The Inquisitor

Too much a creature of urban comforts to ever be called a Nature lover, Henry nonetheless considered himself a Nature liker. And yet, as his eyeballs threatened to dry into powdery husks, he also recognized that Nature had a dark side. And today, that dark side came with bright red epaulets.

In an exchange that may only have been minutes, but felt like hours, Henry held the gaze of his ebon Inquisitor, afraid to look away lest the wraith take wing again, strafing him in violent indignation.

Moments earlier, Henry was taking a lovely stroll along the waterfront, leaving the breezes of the beach for the verdant comfort of the giant reeds and a secluded pond.

His soft-soled shoes barely whispered as he wound his way along the wooden deck that cut a swath across the still, algae-laden waters. Instead, his silent steps were accompanied by the cheerful chirrup of so many sparrows and the steady whine of cicadas complaining about the damp heat.

Merging waters

But as he reached the half-way point, he sensed a change even if he couldn’t yet identify it. The breeze died, the sparrows silenced and the cicadas stilled until all that remained was the low throb of his heart.

And as subtly as the stillness formed, it was macheted by an agonized screech that seemed to quite literally part Henry’s hair.

No sooner had Henry arced through his ducking motion than the demon struck again, piercing eardrum and scalp with equal vigour.

Terror’s impulse to flee was tempered by uncertainty’s steely grip as Henry found himself rooted in place. That something wanted to kill him, he was certain; but the complete absence of movement around him suggested it was all in his mind. His tingling scalp, however, said that whatever was happening was on his head, not in it.

Despite the glaring sunlight that baked the path, trickling tangy sweat into Henry’s fresh wounds, his pupils stretched to their anime widest, searching the chaotic tangle for the slightest signs of movement. He had no reason to believe his tormentor had given up, but all he saw was blue sky, brown tree limbs, green reeds and black water.

Yes, these had all taken on an ominous mantel, but nothing looked capable of launching an attack.

Even as Henry contemplated giving up his search, though, the air was pierced once more with an irritated cry. It was everything he had in him not to turtle.

And that’s when he saw it, the beast with the black eyes of death concealed behind a shroud of serrated alder leaves.

Hunkered down

The expressionless face bobbed lower and turned slightly to its left, determined to take in its quarry. Its oil-drop eye blended almost seamlessly with the void its plumage left in the sky, a puncture of midnight in the midday light. The only break in the evil blackness was a splash of blood red atop its shoulder.

“A bird?” Henry questioned silently, a blush threatening to overwhelm his budding sunburn.

Sloughing his tension like a skin, Henry rolled his shoulders to massage them. That was all the demon needed.

With blinding speed, the creature was upon him again. The flapping wings were matched by flailing arms as Henry swung at his attacker to no avail, his body instinctively twisting as the assailant passed.

It didn’t take Henry nearly as long to find the bird now, the monster standing proudly on an exposed limb, cackling his disdain upon his hapless victim.

“What is your problem?” Henry cried to the skies, briefly silencing the bird, which cocked its head a little further as though contemplating the question.

Henry unconsciously mirrored the action when it squawked back.

Annoyed, Henry turned to walk away but his motion was stopped by a shrill pierce. Spreading its wings, the bird quadrupled in size, a Rorschach nightmare.

As Henry relaxed his muscles, the bird drew in its wings. The stare down began.

Redwing on a reed

Unblinking, Henry met the bird’s gaze with his own, his every emotion reflected in that dead pool of emptiness, that glistening eye. A psychic vacuum, the bird seemed to reach into Henry’s body, threatening to engulf his soul.

Mired in a personal La Brea, Henry could feel his will slowly sink into the sulfurous malevolence. Only ego and will kept him from bowing to the inevitable.

“Look, momma,” a child’s voice squeaked through the tension. “Issa red-wing bla’ bird.”

Out of the corner of his eye, which otherwise remained glued to the bird, Henry could see a small boy trundle down the path, pointing wildly with one hand while waving a camera with the other.

More importantly, Henry saw that the bird caught the arrival as well.

Glimpse

Synchronized swimmers of the air, man and bird vaulted for the boy, whose mother remained several yards away, blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting her budding family.

Every wing beat was matched with a stride, every fluttered feather with airfoiled arm hair. And Henry knew his job was twice as difficult as the bird’s.

Not only did he have to stop the bird from harming the child, but he had to do it without knocking the kid into next Tuesday himself. But one thing at a time.

It is said that when the conditions are just right, you can stop the flight of one bullet with a perfectly timed second bullet.

Henry didn’t know if that was true. Nor did he really have the time to contemplate what conditions such a thing might require.

Pond

All Henry could tell you for certain was that once airborne, a red-winged blackbird is a thousand times more agile than a middle-aged man. That, and it takes about eight days to get the stench of stagnant pond water out of your nostrils.

He has no idea what happened to the kid.

Tuesday troubles

Passengers crowd the Brown Line train in the Loop at evening rush hour, Wednesday, July 16, 2008. The CTA plans to eliminate seats in some train cars to alleviate crowding. (Chicago Tribune photo by Alex Garcia) ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS,  NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT.. 00296065A TrainSeats

Edward didn’t expect much from his day as he rode the subway into work.

It was Tuesday. And as any actuary will tell you, Tuesdays are the least eventful work day in any given week. Edward would know. He too was an actuary.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Edward was not dissatisfied with Tuesdays, or any day of the week for that matter. He just didn’t expect much from it, and definitely less than from say a Monday or a Thursday.

Unbeknownst to Edward, however, today was unlike a typical Tuesday. Today, in fact, was a Tuesday that actuaries dread. The outlier. The anomaly. Today was the Tuesday that lurks in the dark crevices of an actuary’s heart.

Jessica hadn’t expected to leave the house so late this morning. But with Maria’s daycare shut down and Todd’s absence at a business conference, nothing was moving particularly smoothly for the young lawyer and suburban mother.

Vomiting herself from the commuter train as the doors inched open, Jessica practically crowd-surfed to get across the chaotic platform and into the stairwell to the subway system. Today was the Witkenstein proposal and although she herself was not presenting it, the command had been all-hands-on-deck in a show of force. Rare is the law firm that doesn’t like to demonstrate its cannon-fodder for clients.

Catching the smallest of slivers through the human maelstrom on the subway platform—her rail-thin form finally offering her some advantage in life—Jessica slid to the rail-side edge just as the string of cars came to a halt. Unfortunately, that same eel-like body structure meant that she was no match for the human surge that blew her through the subway doors and wedged her against a man of middling height, middling complexion and middling posture.

With a middling acknowledgement of her existence, Edward shifted his elbow slightly so that Jessica could grab the same pole to which he clutched for support in the shifting ebb and flow of transit.

Now, if pressed, Jessica would swear an oath that the box in which her travel mug arrived the previous Christmas promised that it was designed with the latest in anti-spill technology. She had even tested it at home several times, marveling at the results.

But as any actuary will tell you, the chances of a scalding burn from the spilling of hot beverages rises 342% when that beverage is being consumed on mass transit. Edward would know. He too was an actuary.

Now, whether the next event fulfilled that statistic or the numbers were slightly off, the simple reality was that the precise moment the subway took a turn in the tunnel was the same moment that Jessica had tried to reposition herself to lessen the strain on her crooked elbow.

This moment was followed shortly thereafter by another moment in which the incorrectly positioned lid of her travel mug became even more incorrectly positioned and her coffee evacuated itself onto Edward’s shirt.

mug stain

Jessica was horrified as she helplessly watched the taupe liquid spread across the stranger’s chest and cascade as a beige waterfall into his trousers.

As surprised as Edward was by the turn of events, a small part of his brain was also relieved that Jessica liked to use non-dairy creamer, which slightly helped to temper the scalding liquid.

“Bloody hell,” Edward bellowed, his pain sensors over-riding his public decorum filters.

“Oh my god, I am so sorry,” Jessica cried as she struggled through her bag to find that pocket Kleenex pack she had purchased just the day before.

As Edward fought to literally calm his nerves, Jessica did what she could to blot his formerly white shirt, unaware of her increased range of motion as a halo of space had formed around the two of them, everyone retreating from the mess.

“Are you okay?” she asked, genuinely concerned that he might need medical treatment.

Edward was too engrossed in the sensation of slightly sticky dampness that was now encasing his genitalia to answer right away.

Coming back to the moment and realizing that skin grafts were unnecessary, Edward simply raised a placating hand.

“No worries,” he offered with a smile. “Accidents happen.”

Edward would know. He was an actuary.

Jessica did her best to return his smile, but her embarrassment was still too great for her to be comfortable. She had little time to worry, however, as the subway pulled into her stop.

“Here’s my card,” she blurted, pressing her card and the remaining Kleenex into his hand. “Please send me your dry cleaning bill.”

Before Edward could tell her that her offer was kind but unnecessary, Jessica slipped out of the car with the crowd. His thoughts then shifted to making a quick stop at the department store between his subway stop and the office.

Jessica would have had a funny if embarrassing story to share with her husband later that night had the first of the meteors striking off Japan’s coast not started the cataclysm.

Regardless, the nuclear winter that started later that day taught Edward a valuable lesson.

Actuarial science gets it wrong some times. Tuesdays can be eventful.

meteor

Writing is its own success

(I’m going to post this here, now, so that when I do make it big financially, I can prove I really did believe this while I was still poor.)

A writer writes

A writer writes

If you don’t love writing for the sake of writing, get out. For the sake of your own sanity, do something else.

I would like to make a career of my screenwriting and novel writing, but if I don’t, I will still do it and be glad that I do.

The truth is that the majority of us (like 99.9997%) will never make it big as writers…not Terry Rossio big, doubtfully Damon Lindelof big, nor Nora Ephron big. Hell, I’m not even sure the simple majority (50%+) will even make a livable wage as writers.

But as much as I want to hit it big and spread the gospel of my genius (he says only half-facetiously), I write because I love writing and I don’t know how to not write.

I can do other things to keep food in the house and a roof over my head, but I don’t want to if I don’t have to. It all interferes with my time for writing.

Perhaps this passive approach to accomplishing something with my writing will keep me from making it big. But I prefer to think that by focusing on the joy of writing, the excitement of expressing my thoughts and feelings, I will be happy throughout the entire process, from now to wherever and whenever I end up.

If nothing else, this attitude means that everything that comes down the road is a known positive rather than a potential disappointment.

Good luck, everyone.

Bonus!

Bonus!