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I’m getting a lot done on my work+fun trip to Australia. Here is one of the best photos I’ve taken. Just a casual phone snap as I was standing in line to visit the Old Melbourne Gaol. (Note to American readers–that word is pronounced “jail.” Swear.)
There is a whole story in this image. The bride, the insanely huge humvee limo, the driver, the groom…and don’t get me started on the wedding party that poured out after. Suddenly I wasn’t so interested in the gaol.
That’s how it works when writing fiction. You think you’re after one thing–some historical details about the outlaw Ned Kelly, for example–but then the world offers you something else.
A story begins where it ends. And it ends where it begins. For me, the key is to follow the emotional pull. And obviously, this image is a lot more interesting to me than Ned Kelly. I’m excited to see where this writing journey takes me.
Where will your writing journey take you today?
Wow, people. I’m thrilled–and also humbled–by your response to Starlight on Willow Lake. The most frequently-asked question about this book is “How did you come up with a character like Faith?” (She’s the protagonist.)
It’s a good time for me to answer this question, because I’m meeting with a bunch of writers at a Seattle7Writers event on Bainbridge Island. Here is how to make a fictional character seem very real to the reader. Get her talking. Make sure she’s talking in her own voice, not your voice. If you want to write a lot of different characters, you don’t want them all to sound like you.
The key for me is to have her speak in first person–on paper. I’m quirky, as you know, so I write this out in longhand as a free-flowing conversation with my newly-invented character. If you’re a writer, give it a try. If you’re a reader, move on! Go read something wonderful! Then come back and tell us about it!
ANSWER IN THE CHARACTER’S VOICE:
My ordinary world looks like:
The first time the reader meets me, here’s what I’m doing:
My most relatable trait is:
The problem I’m facing right now is:
The thing in my head that’s holding me back is:
The thing in my world that holding me back is:
If I don’t figure out my problem, the consequences are:
Show the reader this image to suggest where the story is going:
My person history in three sentences:
At this moment, I look like:
In school, I was:
The people in my family origin are:
Here’s how I make a living:
Here’s the person I love most in the world:
My favorite thing is:
My least favorite thing is:
I’m aware that I have this personal problem or issue:
My friends and family would say I have this personal issue:
I would finally feel complete if:
The thing I need right now is:
My deepest desire is:
My biggest goal in life is:
I have an emotional wound that stems from:
My greatest regret is:
The way I defend myself is:
The single characteristic that could destroy me is:
The single characteristic that could save me is:
What I want the reader to know about me right this moment is:
The one thing that is going to get me going on my journey is:
I’m reluctant to change my path because:
My biggest fear is:
I express that fear by:
If I don’t go on this journey, here’s what will happen:
If I do go on this journey, here’s what will happen:
The greatest danger to me right now is:
My mentor is:
I do have a code of ethics. Here is its, in one sentence:
Something that bothers my conscience is:
Here’s what it would be required to make me take a leap of faith:
My worst enemy is:
My greatest ally is:
In order to achieve my goal, I would be willing to sacrifice this:
The difficult choice he must make as my journey comes to an end is:
My emotional breakthrough would be:
I’ll know I’ve completed my journey and mastered my problem when I _______________________________________________________________________.
Premise in fiction. Your undergrad English professor probably taught you a fancy definition for this concept, but every novelist will tell you this: The premise is the cool thing your book is about. Simple, right? Like, a crazed fan holds an author hostage and forces him to write a novel (Misery by Stephen King). The lives and loves of best friends through the years (Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy). A forbidden love that lasts a lifetime (The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough). A Navy wife whose marriage is in crisis learns her husband is missing at sea (The Ocean Between Us by my favorite author). In The Art of Dramatic Writing (1977), Lajos Egri (who seems to have been obsessed with the concept of premise) states:
“Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there…Every good play must have a well-formulated premise…No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.”
I envy the writer who comes up with fantastic ideas again and again, using the same method–listening to music, going for a drive, staring out the window, reading the paper, brainstorming with a friend. For me, coming up with a premise is like going shopping without knowing what you’re looking for.
“I’ll know it when I find it,” you tell yourself. Figuring out exactly what “it” is can be all-consuming. All I know is that “it” will be the driving force that sends me on the longest walk in the world, every day for the next six months to a year–that deathly commute from the couch to the blank page. So “it” had better be good. The funny thing is, the harder I try, the more elusive “it” becomes. I think myself into a dither. I fiddle with things. I “what-if” myself into a state of confusion. I go on personal quests in search of the Cool Thing.
Sometimes I get lucky. I might discover it as I take my dogs for a walk on the beach. Suddenly, I might think, “a lonely woman who runs a beachside restaurant.” And I’ll think about why she’s lonely, and what it feels like to own a place where marriage proposals happen on a regular basis. Or I’ll be digging in the garden or Windexing the kitchen, two activities that any writer will tell you have enormous appeal when confronted with a blank page. Maybe “it” will smack me upside the head as I stand at the refrigerator with the door propped open, contemplating the merits of leftover mac-and-cheese for breakfast. Aha, I’ll think. How about a struggling young widow and a bazillionaire?
Then I’ll have to test the idea in a thousand ways, figuring out what the most compelling elements are. Where will the tension come from? What will the reader see on the page and how will I make myself–and then the reader–happy to be reading it?
For most books, my story premise is cobbled together the way a magpie gathers things for its nest, with a shiny object here, a twisty thread there. At some point, maybe while making a story collage, these seemingly disparate pieces will coalesce into the Great Thing I’ve been seeking, the thing that will consume me through the next year: IT.
Do you have a favorite story premise to read or write about? Share below! My inquiring mind want to know.
I hear it from emerging writers all the time. I’ve got a great idea for a novel. I’m going to sit down and write it as soon as I…
- …get my day job under control
- …get my final kid into kindergarten
- …into college …out of jail
- …get my finances in order
- …fix my marriage
- …finish painting the house
- …pay off the car
- …clean the can opener
- …clean the rain gutters
- …get the puppy housebroken
- …retire from my job
- …finish watching the third season of “Weeds”
- …get my Bachelor’s…Master’s…PhD…LLB…MD
- …pay off my student loans
- …read all the Outlander books
- …check in with my nineteen thousand Facebook friends
- …upgrade my computer
- …make tenure
- …landscape the yard
- …take a vacation
- …host my book group
- …teach my teenager to drive
- …finish knitting this sweater
- …forgive my parents …forgive myself
- …get over my fear of failure …get over my fear of success
- …get permission from my parents/spouse/children/therapist
- …hire an agent
- …learn to use the subjunctive case
- …quit worrying about what my family will think of my story, especially the dirty parts
- …stop smoking/drinking/playing online games
- …figure out the business of publishing
- …lose 20 pounds so I look good in my author photo…
You name it, and a procrastinating writer has said it. Here’s a dirty little secret. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the cruel reality is this. There will never be a good time to write. Life will always intrude. That’s what life is. Be glad for that. If you have no life, you have nothing to write about.
The good news is, there’s a simple solution. Make time for the things that are important to you. If writing your story is important, make time for it. Simple as that. Turn off the TV, leave the dishes undone, close your e-mail, grab a notebook and pen, and tell your family, “Don’t interrupt me unless your eyes are bleeding.” You’ll be surprised by the respect they give you.
The way you spend your day is the way you spend your life. So quit being your own worst enemy and start being your own best friend. Make time to write, even if you don’t have time.
I have procrastinated my way through the writing of many books. Somehow, the story emerges. The Beekeeper’s Ball hits the shelves next week. There’s a lot of love and food in that book. Let me know what you think.
Step one – open shitty first draft.
Step two – print out in word draft mode, light colored ink.
Step three – put on extra strong glasses and bright lamp. Rewrite every single page until it looks like it’s bleeding. Be aware that you might need a lot of physical space for laying out the pages. Clothespins are key. So are Post-It notes.
Step five – type in handwritten edits.
Step six – go back to step 2 and do it all again.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Barkis is not too subtle when he wants to go for a walk….
The secret? See below:
I believe traditions remind us of who we are when we’re in danger of forgetting.
Both The Goodbye Quilt and How I Planned Your Wedding (a funny memoir I wrote with my daughter, Elizabeth) are about letting go and moving on in the most loving way possible. As the school year comes to an end, the fact that your nest is empty stares you in the face.
If your daughter or son has gone away to college, like Molly in The Goodbye Quilt, she is now coming home as a “guest” in the house where she grew up. When this happened in my life, I finally understood the whole point of family traditions that revolve around food. A strong tradition, no matter how unconventional, is a bit like a short cut. It’s a cue to remind us to slip back into celebration mode without having to reinvent the wheel.
I wasn’t prepared for those odd moments of awkwardness when Elizabeth walked into the house on her first trip home from college. After a gleeful reunion with the dogs, her old favorite things and the freakishly neat room that used to be such a mess, she didn’t quite seem to know what to do with herself. Should she unpack that suitcase full of dirty clothes? Call her friends, play the piano, go for a walk? It was like being in an alternate reality. For a moment, we were unhappy, uncertain.
Then I said, “Let’s put on music and bake cookies.”
Within minutes, we’d fallen back into our roles–mom and daughter, goddesses in the kitchen, legends in our own minds, singing at the tops of our lungs. It was the start of a wonderful homecoming, and a reminder of who we are…at our brightest and most kind.
Speaking of cookies, here is my most-requested holiday recipe from a previous novel, Lakeshore Christmas:
Jane Bellamy’s Mint Meltaways
“My old family recipe was a secret, until we realized everybody else knew about this perfect pairing of chocolate and mint.”
¾ cup butter
1 ½ cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons crème de menthe liqueur or water
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
2 ¾ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
24 Andes Mints
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. In a saucepan, melt together the butter, brown sugar, and crème de menthe liqueur (or water), stirring occasionally.
Add the chocolate chips and stir until melted. Let stand 10 minutes to cool. Add the remaining ingredients and combine with a spatula to form a soft dough.
4. Wrap the dough and chill at least 1 hour.
5. Roll the dough into 1½ inch balls and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet, leaving ample space between the dough balls. Bake 8 to 9 minutes.
6. Remove the cookies from the oven, and on top of each cookie, place half of an Andes Mint. Allow the mint to melt and then swirl with the back of a spoon.