Writing Books/plot and story ideas
i am a very green author... of mostly auto biographical writing that hasn't even been sent to a publisher... what and how are some ways to extract fiction out of real life situations... and make it ... publisher worthy...
Krissina, you are at the stage in your creative process where you can learn the most by studying other authors who have been successful at writing "auto-biographical fiction." Many of thier works are written as memoirs, but in fact, they contain a great deal of fiction. I will list some female authors whom I hold in high regard: Collette, Anais Nin, Gertrude Stein, Erica Jong. These are all female auto-biographical fiction writers who exercise a strong, vivid voice. If my assumption was off the mark, and you would be interested in male authors, let me know! I will also include here a lecture I give called "How Writer's Read." Read the lecture first, then grab a few of the writers that I have listed just for you. Try to apply some of the observations I make in the lecture to your own reading. By the way, the copy/paste I do of the lecture will be a bit messy; this can't be helped in these little dialogue boxes that AllExperts provides for us. However, I don't think it will present a reading problem for you. Ready then? Here goes!
A WRITER'S LIBRARY; How Writers Read
"…I have been sitting at this desk for hours, staring into the darkened shelves of books. I love their presence, the way they honor the wood they rest upon…."
The Abortion by Richard Brautigan
Fascinated by the differences between village and city cultures, last night I melted into my overstuffed club chair in Los Angeles, California where I read about the Greek village described by Nikos Kazantzakis in his novel, The Greek Passion:
"…It was Easter Tuesday; Mass was just over. Exquisite weather, tender: spring sun and rain; the lemon blossoms were fragrant, the trees budding, the grass reviving, Christ rising from every cloud. The Christians were coming and going across the square and embracing one another with the Paschal greeting: 'Christ is risen!' 'Risen indeed!' --after which they would go and sit at Kostandis's café' or in the middle of the square under the old plane tree. They ordered narghiles, with their long tubes and bubbling water, and coffee, and at once there began an endless chatter like the light rain…."
This reading arrived on the heels of my analysis the night before of The Spider's House, a novel of life in French Morocco by Paul Bowles:
"…The muddy streets led down, down. There was not a foot of level ground. He had to move forward stiff-ankled, with the weight all on the balls of his feet. The city was asleep. There was profound silence, broken only by the scuffing sound he made as he walked. The man, barefooted, advanced noiselessly. From time to time, when the way led not through inner passages but into the open, a solitary drop of rain fell heavily out of the sky, as if a great invisible piece of wet cloth were hanging only a few feet above the earth. Everything was invisible, the mud of the street, the walls, the sky. Stenham squeezed the flashlight suddenly, and had a rapidly fading view of the man moving ahead of him in his brown djellaba, and of his giant shadow against the beams that formed the ceiling of the street…."
After several such late evenings, I collapsed in bed with my wife examining the lines of my face, my eyes distant, dreaming of far away lands. "Jet lag again," she said. "Tsk, tsk. I'll have to lock up your books!" Lucky for me, she never has.
As writers, we find our own ideas and activities inspirational, yet we also find the journeys of other writers equally fascinating. Reading exercises our mental vision and focus. Living vicariously through books is as experiential and broadening as our own travels. Intellectual experience is valid because humankind is capable of penetrating and grasping life in a variety of ways.
Writers make highly developed readers, navigating through mountains of humanity's recorded observations bearing a particular theme in mind, although we investigate a number of categorical genres and writing formats within that theme.
I write autobiographical fiction delving into the struggle of the individual, discovering a spiritual meaning in a competitive, material society. I spend ten to twenty percent of my time reading - no more than that; after all, life does exist off the page - in varied genre and formats: poetry, screenplays, short stories, novels, philosophy, science, art and religion; and all of these with a common theme - humankind's emotional, spiritual, and physical survival in a modern metropolis.
A piece of written composition is sculpted like a Rodin bronze figure. From any angle, the piece must nourish its audience. Writing is sculpting in the round using words, and professional writers find themselves constantly analyzing the juxtaposition of words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.
We ask ourselves, while we read, is the story plot driven or character driven, and in either case does the author develop a healthy balance between the two drives?
Do characters walk the walk and talk the talk in a naturally flowing manner, and do their discussions sustain enough tension to maintain reader interest?
Is the theme well expressed? Another way of asking that question is, am I clear enough on the theme to express it clearly to others?
Has the author considered the environment of the story? The tragedy and glory of humanity do not play themselves out in a vacuum.
Through reading, we substantialize places and meet people we may never have visited or met, and we study the author's method.
Wishing to expose myself to the creative possibilities of word sounds and cadence, I read poetry:
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,/ starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for/ an angry fix,/ angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection/ to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night./ who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking/ in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating/ across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, …"
Howl by Allen Ginsberg
For clear examples of plot construction, and with an ear to the ground for dialogue, I read screenplays. In this scene from Tempest by Paul Mazursky and Leon Capetanos, the emotional conflict is barely held in check while tension builds rhythmically to a crescendo:
"…ANTONIA Phil? Are you not in love with me?
PHILLIP What the hell has love got to do with this?
ANTONIA I'm asking you if you care about me. Care about us. Not just you.
PHILLIP I don't need your guilt.
ANTONIA You haven't answered the question.
PHILLIP I care about you. I care about your work, I care about your happiness. I care. But most of the time, I don't give a shit about anything.
ANTONIA Except yourself, you mean.
PHILLIP Yeah, that's right. You got it! (He picks up a dish on the counter.) I don't care about these cheese things. They bore me. I don't care about this kitchen. I hate these white walls. They're boring. (He walks around the living room.) I hate this floor! I hate this vase. (He lifts it and starts to smash it.)
ANTONIA Go ahead. Break it. You don't like it, break it!
PHILLIP (Puts vase down.) I'm the king of high tech! (Points at cat in chair.) I hate this cat. I hate its whiskers. I hate its fleas. And I hate you…."
For first person immediacy, attitude, and intuitive commentary, I read autobiographical fiction or the fictional memoir:
"…palaces and factories spring up side by side, and munitions plants and chemical works and steel mills and sanatoriums and prisons and insane asylums. …I was one, a single entity in the midst of the greatest jamboree of wealth and happiness (statistical wealth, statistical happiness) but I never met a man who was truly wealthy or truly happy…."
Tropic Of Capricorn by Henry Miller
A scientific treatment of man versus urban planning and development, when well written, is filled with detailed, colorful descriptions:
"Let us imagine an early fall evening in New York City. Rain and high wind terminating the heat of an exceptionally warm Indian-summer day have brought on prematurely the blackness of night.
Into the gloomy downpour thousands of doors, architecturally designed for giants, have jettisoned half a million workers homeward bound. Subway entrances are jammed by inflowing masses in quest of swift transportation from local darkness to lighter suburbs. The stairways to the sheltered heights of the 'elevated,' linking, with steel rails, the Battery, Bronx, Astoria and Flushing with midtown Manhattan, are vibrant under the stomp of a multitude of mounting feet…."
Nine Chains To The Moon by R. Buckminster Fuller
How about classic contemporary novels dealing with the ethics of a capitalistic, mechanized society and the evolution of the individual - in this case, demonstrating a need to triumph over his loss of identity and succeed materially within a cosmopolitan framework?
The following is a lesson - which has stuck with me since first reading this work almost twenty years ago - in fiction technique from a master twentieth century novelist:
"Who is John Galt? …"
Author Ayn Rand has just introduced the theme of her novel, Atlas Shrugged, one thousand plus pages, in four words!
Writers gobble up newspapers, magazines, anthologies, trade and reference material, milk cartons, the backs of cereal boxes (ad copy is replete with lessons on the psychology of brevity and color), and we read other writers: Raymond Carver reads playwright Anton Chekhov and poet and essayist Gallagher; Tom Clancy reads navel authority Samuel Eliot Morison, Fredrick Forsyth, British author Gerald Seymour, and a variety of military newspapers as well as the Washington Post; Robert Coles reads James Agee, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Erik Erikson, and Sigmund and Anna Freud; and Charles Bukowski devoured John Fante.
Alas, poor Jimmey Baldwin - I knew him well! His books arrived so crisp and clean, their weight firm and earthly in my hands, the fresh, wafting odor of acid balanced pages. At first, I couldn't bear opening a volume, but only running my fingertips along the edges of the fly cover and sniffing the binding glue.
I'm certain he had no idea I would mark his pages using vibrant green and red ink - those passages worthy of memorization, whole paragraphs slashed out because I felt they robbed the work of power, his genius upon which I crudely turned page corners as reminders for a later date, wonderfully wide margins in which I congratulated, championed, and castigated his troubled life; writing my illegible scrawl, celebrating, attempting to suck the marrow from his bones - and may I say, James, in all good conscience, for my crimes against your manuscripts, your children, I feel no shame!
A writer's library holds no resale value because we think graphically while we read. We pause considering statements, questions, and concepts. Books are working tools and writers use highlighters, pens, pencils, sticky-notes, and house paint if need be to clarify, draw attention to, question, underline with admiration, slash out in anger, and otherwise chew over the work.
Yes, if you're Jewish, prepare for major guilt. If you're a Gentile, genuflect and say three Hail Marys, and if you're Italian, do both - we mark our books. This marking of pages allows us reflection without breaking the author's stride.
Keep a reading journal. Any three-ring binder will suffice. Using a straight edge and your pen divide pages vertically in half. Review your markings and meanderings of genius in the margins and on the flyleaf of your book. Rewrite these in your journal after paying homage to the author by finishing the book without breaking stride. Do not simply copy your margin notes - expound on them: elucidate, illuminate, enlighten yourself or lighten your load. Remember, a writer writes! Use one half of the journal page for your brilliant exposition and the other for perverse drawings and diagrams. In the pages of your journal you will digress, regress, and obsess courageously.
Don't show your journal to anyone. If you possess writer's ego, you realize everyone other than yourself is undeserving of your brilliance.
We've discussed a writer's general method of madness when it comes to literature selection. We know that writers read a broad range of materials with their particular thematic interest in mind. But how, specifically, do writers analyze?
Analysis is a participatory process demanding that reading writers ask questions:
1) Consider the title. A title is the author's first statement or question. Ask yourself the following questions:
A. Does this title draw me in?
B. Does the title focus the work?
C. Does the title present a clue as to the author's attitude?
Here are a few of my favorite titles:
Stories in an Almost Classical Mode by Harold Brodkey.
Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan.
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well by Maya Angelou.
2) Read the acknowledgments. This page can represent a treasure map to a gold mine. The author discovered a secret passage to publishing success lined with helpful persons, institutions, and varied sources of information, technical assistance, and financial aid, and you want to learn all about it.
3) Does the table of contents, introduction and preface offer a hint as to the author's reason for writing the work and his plan of attack? Does a broad theme emerge?
4) Describe the author's voice, tone, and style.
Is the work conversational, rambling, humorous, serious, dry or powerful, zesty and colorful?
Does the author opt for open or closed punctuation, and how does this affect the rhythm and mood of the prose?
Answering this set of questions will require practice. Read these three treatments of the same subject by different authors. While reading, practice discovering answers to the questions in number four above:
"…Place de Clichy was a bedlam of traffic. The gendarmes, in their ominous capes and white forearm-gauntlets, stood in the midst of snarled Citroens like impatient matadors in a corrida full of cows, screaming at jaywalkers, summoning on hesitant taxies, furious at the chaos that seemed to demean them in their power. I didn't like their hard, contemptuous jaws, the angry, chopping gestures of their arms, their air of self-righteousness goaded by incompetence towards violence. After London's mild and courteous bobbies, they were a shock, a shock reminding me that I was in a republic once again where the citizenry is assumed to be restive with egalitarianism, and the police are armed against them, and the streets are the ultimate arena for civic disagreement…."
Displaced Person by John Clellon Holmes
"PARIS, FRANCE IS exciting and peaceful. …chickens do not get flustered running across the road, if they start to cross the road they keep on going which is what french people do too.
Anybody driving a car in Paris must know that. Anybody leaving the sidewalk to go on or walking anywhere goes on at a certain pace and that pace keeps up and nothing startles them nothing frightens them nothing makes them go faster or slower nothing not the most violent or unexpected noise makes them jump, or change their pace or their direction. If anybody jumps back or jumps at all in the streets of Paris you can be sure they are foreign not french. That is peaceful…" [The above quoted material is correct. More than any other author, Ms. Stein plays by her own rules.]
Paris France by Gertrude Stein
"…Paris is a place where you can really walk around at night and find what you dont want, O Pascal.
Trying to make my way to the Opera a hundred cars came charging around a blind curve-corner and like all the other pedestrians I waited to let them pass and then they all started across but I waited a few seconds looking the other charging cars over, all coming from six directions - Then I stepped off the curb and a car came around that curve all alone like the chaser running last in a Monaco race and right at me - I stepped back just in time - At the wheel a Frenchman completely convinced that no one else has a right to live or get to his mistress as fast as he does - As a New Yorker I run to dodge the free zipping roaring traffic of Paris but Parisians just stand and then stroll and leave it to the driver - And by God it works, I saw dozens of cars screech to a stop from 70 M.P.H. to let some stroller have his way! …"
Satori In Paris by Jack Kerouac
Back to business:
5) What is the author's theme?
6) Is the work symbolic? Allow me to clarify:
Does Moby Dick represent the devil; greed; a narrow minded goal; a story of what a boat full of men, without any women, alone at sea for a long, long time will do with each other; man's penchant nature for self-destruction through adolescent male posturing; an extreme case of penis envy; or a whale?
That clears it up, doesn't it?
7) During the final quarter of the read, ask yourself, "How would I describe the work in three sentences?"
This question is tougher than it appears and tests your general recall of all that you have read, allowing you to pull together the pieces and make concrete your understanding of the author's message.
8) And last, but not least, the desecrative question you never ask or answer out loud - but you may record it in your reading journal - "How would I have written it differently?"
This question naturally evolves out of the text, because while reading you bring to the experience your awareness: your temperament, value system, and your experience with justice and injustice in the world. You find yourself discovering the work through your open-mindedness, we hope; your tunnel vision, we hope not; your ability to grasp abstruse concepts; your creative ability for confrontation; and your nobility of purpose in living.
All of these qualities, and more, are part of your analytical experience. Being human, we project what we believe to be the truth of the matter onto that truth which the author conveys.
"How would I have written it differently?" is not a question for the lily-livered. Bellow the query! Hunt down the answer like Ernest Hemingway hunting big game! Through this answer you'll become aware of who you are. It is an introspective confidence builder. Know yourself and learn to trust your insight and imagination. This is how a writer reads!