…(thanks Dr. John!)
I love having a workshop to look forward to. Be it in our little forum online, or through my classes at the Institution of Higher Learning by which I am employed and provided with the opportunity to attend classes, I’m always learning something and improving my writing.
Earlier this week, we had our first few stories presented in class and it felt so good to read some talented interpretations of the anecdote we were given to work with. I don’t remember the name of the piece Jill, our instructor, drew it from, but it was good and had me stumped for a little while. The scenario was as follows: A poor grandmother, her granddaughter her only family, receives a letter from her ex-husband after ages of no contact. In this letter, he asks that the granddaughter be sent to live with him, as he can provide a more comfortable life, opportunities that she would not have if she remains with her grandmother, etc. If Grandma lets her granddaughter go, she will never see her again. What does she do?
Stories come from little situations like this. A snippet of a news story, and overheard conversation in a grocery store (Wal-Mart is an awesome place to overhear some doozies of redneck drama, let me tell you!), a minor character in a movie that grabs your attention, all of these and infinitely more can be the spark that starts a creative wildfire. All you have to do is write that puppy down when it catches your attention and let it mull. Just don’t be lazy and think ‘I’ll remember that when I wake up.’ Truly, if a really cool/frightening/vivid dream wakes you up, it’s a sign. Write that bitch down.
Driving back and forth to work used to be my time to let ideas roll around inside my skull, mixing and mingling (to a jingling—sorry;-) and generating images and dialogue. Since the Spousal Unit and I usually carpool these days, I don’t get to do as much of that any more. But for me, I need quiet, alone time to write without distractions, to be able to hear the voices in my head. These days I tend to do what I’m doing right now; wake up semi-early, or at least well before the Spousal Unit arises, and sit in the living room with my laptop and the front door open to the world of birdsong. Seriously, it sounds like an Alfred Hitchcock movie right now, with all the starlings, cardinals and crows I can hear. Any sounds beyond the soundtrack of nature (such as the dog whining when a loud truck/stray cat/low-flying cloud passes by) drag me out of my creative reverie. Music, while a good damper for the distractions and one of my great loves and inspirations, becomes a distraction unto itself. I catch myself humming along and remembering the words to the song, not the words that need to appear on the page.
But back to the actual craft of writing. It’s not just putting words on paper that magically tell a story. Maybe it’s that effortless for some people, but not me. There is a time to reveal details a little at a time but withholding information that will increase dramatic tension is a mistake that we all make in the first draft. Jill has this great example of how perceptions of the reader change when more or less information is given in a story. It goes something like this:
“Oh my God, I’m pregnant, what am I going to do? Do I have an abortion, do I keep the baby, do I put it up for adoption? What will my family think? Oh, by the way, I was inseminated by a chimpanzee.”
That last line changes things a bit, doesn’t it? At first we’re just thinking that maybe it’s some teenager, like countless ones before that find themselves “in trouble”. Or a mother of a large family that just can’t face another round of dirty diapers, the added expense, a more crowded house? But if we give the chimpanzee information earlier, we heighten that dramatic tension by letting the audience start out with the wild and crazy flights of imagination that confession will bring:
“Oh my God, I’m pregnant by a chimpanzee, what am I going to do? Do I have an abortion, do I keep the baby, do I put it up for adoption? What will my family think?”
What will my family think indeed? Not only are you a slut, but you’re into really hairy little guys? You’re a prisoner and victim of some bizarre torture? A participant in some weird scientific experiment that has gone horribly wrong?
She has a point, and as I enter the rewrite of my rough draft with these thoughts in mind, I hope to create more dramatic tension by revealing what the reader needs to know at the right time while still maintaining the balance of the story.
Wish me luck, I’m going in!