Saturday, May 15, 2010

Surfing for Story

Surfing for Story
First appeared on Editor Unleashed on April 14, 2009
By Alegra Clarke

I have this belief that there are authors born with an invisible third ear tuned to stories floating around in the ether. They don’t need to plan, all they have to do is pick up their pen and tilt their head to invite the stories to dive into their minds.

I am definitely not one of them. Terror was the only reason I began my first novel attempt without an outline. I knew that if I paused long enough to think about what I was doing I would be paralyzed like a rabbit in oncoming headlights.

My first attempt at something other than a short story was born out of a caffeine-induced dare. After a surf session, I was sitting at a cafĂ© in New Zealand enjoying a soup-bowl sized mug of coffee with my friend when she suggested that we both attempt to write a romance novel. Never able to pass up a dare, I was game. We brainstormed our ideas and I ended up writing “His Picture, Her Words” a story about a female journalist and a big wave surfer with a dark past.

My first query was met with rejection. I reassessed and sent it out again, this time receiving my first taste of success; I had made it out of the slush pile with a request for the full manuscript. Once the editor had the entire story I imagine it became clear I was treading water to get myself to shore. While the manuscript was ultimately rejected, it gave me the confidence to begin again, and this time with a little more courage to contemplate what I wanted to do and why. Key word being ‘little’ but isn’t there some saying about all it takes is the faith of the mustard seed?

Even though I was never destined to write romances, it taught me about the structure and discipline needed to write 70,000 words or more. I now use outlines even for rewrites of short stories, not because the writing will be obedient to the outline but because in the process of outlining, I develop my own temporary third ear. An outline forces me to contemplate the story and to ask myself some difficult questions about why I am writing it. I am finding that more often than not, I am surprised by the answers.

A synopsis is often described as a roadmap, it can’t convey the landscape, but it gives a sense of direction and makes the prospect of beginning less daunting. Right now, I may not know what the ending of my novel looks like, but I have a sense of where I need to go to get there.

I have found three travel guides for this journey invaluable. These books are dog-eared, thick with highlighted passages and always close at hand when I am in need of inspiration:

Writing the Breakout Novel
by Donald Maass

First on my list because of all the books on writing a novel I have read, this one continues to be invaluable in the way it inspires me, helping me to ask those difficult questions that lead to the heart of a story. I have no doubt it will be returned to again and again.

Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go
by Les Edgerton

Devoted to the importance of beginnings, and by the nature of beginnings, also helps in contemplating the importance of the middle and end.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
by By Anne Lamott

How to describe Anne Lamott? This book is my writer’s bible, meaning that whenever the bogeyman of doubt comes creeping into my mind all I have to do is pick up her book at any random page and read a line. She casts out mental demons with a humor like none other.

Post note:
Since the writing of this article, another book has taken up permanent residence on my shelf

Make a Scene: Crafting a Poweful Story One Scene at a Time
By Jordan Rosenfeld

This book has transformed my writing. I recently received some great feedback regarding the first half of my novel and my first impulse was to write the author, Jordan Rosenfeld, and thank her.

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