- The first book that inspired me to write was Little Women. I recently received a 3-star review (what?!?!) on Goodreads, and so of course, I checked out that person’s other reviews. Little Women – that fantastic story of Jo March and her sisters – also received three stars from her. I’ll take it!
- The first book I wrote was Red & Blue about my great-grandparents’ pugs (if it’s sounding familiar, it’s because I put it in Lu). I don’t remember the story, but I do remember I illustrated each page. My artistic skills have not improved since that time, and at that time, they hadn’t improved since Kindergarten. I let the illustrating dreams die with that publication.
- The writing dreams continued, however! I titled my second book Southern Accents, a work of historical fiction that opened with a riveting paragraph about a curtain catching the breeze and a girl awakening from a deep slumber. You would have gained 1,000 calories in reading through the adjectives.
- I flunked my first paper for ninth grade honors English. We were to write on the topic of My Most Prized Possession. I titled the essay accordingly, began it with the sentence, “My most prized possession is …” and ended with, “This concludes my paper on my most prized possession.” You can’t say the “F” was for lack of clarity!
- I split my high school writing efforts between writing notes to friends in class and writing a column for the high school newspaper. The notes definitely contained the better material, though they probably centered too much on boys named Aaron, Jason, and Don.
- All I ever wanted to study in college was journalism, but when decision time rolled around, I decided no. Three months into my college freshman year, I decided yes, but was at a school without a full journalism program. Huh. So I started a Christian magazine, The Thread, and ran it for two years.
- Journalism 101: At best, people will skim your stuff. Write well anyway.
- I tried – for example, the time I wrote about bike polo, though I’m sports’ illiterate. I left with a great story and a bloody finger. But I didn’t fall off my bike! I’d like the world to know that.
- My first big-girl writing gig was as a technical editor for accounts receivables software. The work was as thrilling as that last sentence. I did it for 5 years.
- Technical Editing 101: At best, no one will read your stuff. Write well anyway.
All TroyBoys had clean pants to wear to school today, so there’s that.
There’s still 150 papers to grade. I need to go for a run, and I just remembered I forgot to pick up my contacts from the optometrist again. The produce from last week’s CSA box is still in the box in the garage, as is a pile of furniture and clothes for Vietnam Vets to pick up (once I call them. Why don’t they operate telepathically?) I haven’t made my bed in two months.
There’s never a good time to write. Maybe Sue Grafton and others who make a living from their words can write in normal working hours, but for the rest of us, it’s stealing time from our sleep or that afternoon we were supposed clean up the yard.
Never once when I sat down to write Lu did I say, “Now here’s a good time to write!”
And I didn’t today on Day 9 of NaNoWriMo. But I have three hours until school’s out, and the house is clean (thank you, Linda Sintz!). I built a fire. I poured wine. I opened my laptop to something I haven’t worked on for awhile (clue is in the picture) and I stole time.
It’s early November, and I might not cook another meal until I turn in grades for the semester. The house is a mess. Piles everywhere, and I should just throw away the one of the boys’ schoolwork on the kitchen counter. I like to look through it and talk with them about what they’re learning, but who has time?
I set the coffee to brew.
“You’ve got five minutes, pile.”
Two minutes in and I find this.
Uh-Oh … Monster Loose!!!! By Jesse Troy
Sunset. My cabin. Magical cauldron. DUH! I’m a witch; it makes sense that it’s sunset, I’m at a cabin, and brewing something suspicious. Why bother, you ask? Cause’ I a witch, that’s why (we witches don’t always use weird proper grammar). Anyway, we (me and my beautiful cat, Midnight) heard knocking.
“Who’s there?!” I shout in my most wicked shout (my awesome shout, not my ugly one).
“Come in,” I moan.
“UNLESS YOU ARE VERY TIRED OF LIVING, PLEASE COME IN!!!!!
It’s 4AM, and Jess is sleeping in his bed, but he’s talking to me through this paper. He does have an awesome shout and an ugly one. He has a great sense of humor, but I didn’t know it extended to grammar jokes. He wants a cat, but Mom’s allergic. I’m glad he wrote one into a story because if we can’t realize dreams on the page, what’s the point? And that last line? That’s pretty much how he talks to Ezra all the time.
Talk of finding and maintaining your writing voice can feel high-brow. The work of my 9-year-old son makes it plain to me. I don’t have to wake Jesse up to ask him whether he was interested in this story or whether he made himself laugh with his jokes. His writing, his voice, makes it clear.
He told his story well; he told his story like himself. Let’s make like Jess on Day 8 of NaNoWriMo. You’re gonna have to tell something today. Tell it like you tell it.
Enter Jim Michels: my ninth grade English teacher and flunker of unsuspecting freshman. He’s been my writing mentor ever since, and he’s a goody with 46 years in the classroom and 16 years of writing a weekly sports column for my hometown newspaper, The News-Herald.
Remember to call him Jim, I reminded myself as I dialed his number. I’m a little past 14-years-old, and he asked me to start using his first name … doing the math … two decades ago (ahem)? But he’s forever Mr. Michels in my mind (and yes, I started that sentence with a conjunction, Mr. Michels. Whoopsy!)
Do you remember any of my writing from ninth grade?
That hurts, Jim.
I remember that it was good.
That’s a cop-out answer.
Your writing in ninth grade was distinctive from your classmates – you had a comfortable flow and a wittiness to the things you wrote. The roots were there, and the storytelling focus of the Freshman year was to help your voice come through. When you guys came into class, your writing had no voice, whatsoever. I blew up that concept for you with the My Most Prized Possession paper.
Did anyone ever pass?
Oh yeah, there was a C+ one time.
Let’s talk “voice.” What does that mean?
Voice is to make your writing sound like yourself instead of a writing robot. Everyone speaks distinctly, but when they write, there’s a lot more pressure. They know others can look at it and pick it apart. There’s a fear of being judged.
You spent a decent part of class orally sharing your personal stories. Tap-dancing on your wife’s pizza and trimming your sister’s parakeet’s beak to oblivion are just a couple I remember. What was the purpose of this?
No one can tell your story as well as you. One of the most important features of the story-telling unit was to make you comfortable sharing personal experiences with me and your classmates. It took the judgmental aspect out of play because nothing you could come up with would be more embarrassing or ludicrous or just plain stupid than what I had already shared. You could all now write truly and fearlessly about personal experiences without worrying whether your topic would be accepted. The more outrageous the better.
Why start with personal stories?
To start small and build. If someone wants to start writing, don’t start out with War & Peace. Maybe just start out with War.
Funny English teacher.
Everybody has stories in the background. They give you topics you’re familiar with so that you can concentrate on telling them as well as possible. It’s about first getting comfortable in writing things you enjoy because that will keep you writing. Who knows? What comes out of those might turn into a gem for a longer work, like you with the Crock-Pot.
How important is the enjoyment of writing?
The joy has to be in writing. You have to enjoy the idea. If you have to drag yourself to a table to sit down and write, you’ll never get anything done. And quitting writing doesn’t do anything, either. It’s not like rabbits. Tell me, how many years did you break from the first time you tried to write Lu to the second?
And when you took it back out of the drawer, were there more pages?
Not a one.
Writers work their way toward solutions. Ignoring a problem is not a solution. Even when things aren’t going well, you have to believe, “Somehow, I’ll get through this. Writer’s block doesn’t mean I’m not a writer, it means things aren’t going well right now.” Fight through that stuff. Choose another direction or change the topic until you’re comfortable with the way things are coming out.
How do you grow that confidence?
As a teacher, I’d ask questions. How do you like it? How do you think it’s going? I wanted all of you to make your own decisions, think about your own topics and how to go about them in your own way instead of patterning yourself after another writer. Anyone trying to be the next Hemingway can be no more than an imitation. Does anyone really want imitation vanilla or imitation crab meat? No, those are purchased only because they are cheaper. Why be a cheap copy when you can be one-of-a-kind?
I get it, but how do you achieve it?
While keeping the audience tucked in the backs of their brains, successful writers write for themselves. They have to like what they are doing, otherwise no one else will.
And how does that confidence play into the form our writing takes, like the choice to write a blog vs. a book?
Different people are able to do different things with their writing. I sometimes thought I’d write a book, but when I look back at what I was able to do – to do the teaching I wanted to do plus write and be published in the paper 2-3 times/week – that was enough. And maybe that’s why a book has never come out. There’s different approaches for everybody. You just have to do what’s right for you.
What do you think makes for a good story?
All good stories have two simple components. The storyteller must have something to say that matters to him/her and then must say it well. Every year in Sports Illustrated I read stories about topics that do not appeal to me. Some I find I cannot put down. How does this happen – that a story on spelunking suddenly becomes important to me? They become important to me me because they were important to the writer who conveyed that importance to the reader.
And to write well?
The treatment of the topic is as important as the topic itself. A bad writer cannot tell a great story. This is as painful as listening to someone who has no business telling a joke trying to tell a joke. A poor delivery system always ends in disaster.
Writers need to be themselves in their work. Great writing is unique writing, and the first judge of that is the writer.
Which brings us back to where we started.
There’s an individual inside each person. It takes confidence to be an individual, but unless you’re an individual, you won’t have true voice come through in your writing. Finding your voice is allowing your voice to say what it has to say.
Writing for me began with an “F” on my first paper for ninth grade English. It was a straight-forward assignment: an essay about My Most Prized Possession. I gave a second’s thought to what I’d write about – my dancing shoes – and that was the last second of thought I gave to the three-paragraph expository essay I titled, “My Most Prized Possession,” began with, “My most prized possession is …,” and ended with, “This concludes my essay on my most prized possession” – just in case my English teacher missed that I’d written about … my most prized possession.
The man gave me an F. I’d never seen anywhere close to that area of the alphabet, even in the subjects I stunk at (read: everything but English). Didn’t he know he was dealing with a Power of the Pen alumnus?
But my work didn’t speak to my cred. No, as my teacher stood in the front of the classroom with a pile of student papers to read aloud, it only took five examples for me to clue into two things: we’d all started our papers the same way, and we’d all flunked.
An F for thoughtlessness, for telling my stories without thought to how they could be told. An F for carelessness, for telling my stories without care to how I could tell them. An F for boredom, for telling my stories like a writing robot.
The stories we keep telling mean something to us. I return to this story all the time: The Day I Flunked. That F was the start of something for me, and I have one teacher and has nasty little red pen to thank for it, which I did in the Acknowledgments for Lu:
The seeds for writing stories as only I can tell them were planted in 9th grade English by Jim Michels. You taught me the rules, and you taught me how to break them. You taught me how to set my own bar of satisfaction so that I’d never submit something I wasn’t first pleased to read. Thank you for making it about the work and for teaching me to work well.
Jim agreed to come out of retirement to share some writing nuggets. That’s tomorrow, and it will be a treat. For today of NaNoWriMo, let’s think about a story we want to tell. Tomorrow, Jim will teach us how to tell it well.
*** And the winner is … Lauren Arbogast! I’ll email you the details. Thanks to everyone who participated!
Maybe 5 days of NaNoWriMo story talk has you wanting to put words on a page. Maybe that blank page seems very blank. Stephen King (author of 200 short stories, 54 novels, and 6 nonfiction books) feels the same way:
The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only better.
There’s something about opening a Word document that feels very official. To get started I’ll often go analog, especially with blogging. Do I have anything to say? I’m not sure. So I’ll leave the computer be and open a journal instead. I’ll write stuff down; I’ll cross stuff out. Sometimes I’ll never use any of it, as with this page.
Writing stuff down and not using it is not writing lost. Writing lost is what you never put down on the page. I take journals with me everywhere to capture ideas as they come and to make the most of the 5-minute increments that build my days. Some I publish, some I don’t, but all get me through that first doubt of filling the blank page.
Would you like some journals to carry? Cool, because my friend Kristin Marks of Emmy Cate Designs makes them custom with your choice of words, phrases, and images.
I’m giving away 3 for one lucky winner – that’s one for your purse (to write when you’re standing line), one for your catch-all kitchen drawer (to write when you’re waiting for coffee to boil), and one for your night-stand (to write before bed). Or maybe you’re going to give these to three writers in your life. Choose your own adventure, but you need to post a comment to enter to win! Giveaway closes by noon on Friday, November 10.
I almost passed this one on by.
I do this. You tell me, “Oh, I met this person you’ll just love!” and I repel. Surely this is remnants of 16-year-old angst, but in the case of Laura Smith, it’s also because she had what I wanted. When we met three years ago, she was a published author with multiple titles to her name, and I was a girl who’d tried to write something several years back and failed. I wanted to try writing again, but was too scared, which is why my friend, Amber, suggested her friend, Laura. Yeah, I could see how running some stuff by another writer could help, but I was too consumed with the idea that there was room for only one of us.
I believe they call this envy.
Well, trying to keep Ms. Smith at bay is like trying to ignore a double rainbow in the sky. The splendor requires you to stop, pay attention, and marvel. So went my first meeting with Laura when I tentatively shared my kinda, sorta, shoulda, maybe, perhaps writing thoughts with her. I don’t remember what she said, but I can guess to its cotton-candy nature based on the follow-up email she sent me (with Laura, there’s always a follow-up email):
Thinking about you today and your writing journey. I wanted to remind you that if God gave you this talent, He doesn’t want it buried in the sand, but used for His glory. He’ll reveal to you how and when and in what ways.
In short, Laura Smith is one of the most lovely human beings I’ve ever met. And she’s my writing buddy.
What does that mean? It’s probably unique to each pair, but for Laura and me it looks like … everything. We officially met this morning to talk about a Coffee & Collaboration chat we’re hosting next Saturday (you should come), and we did talk about that. We did. We also talked about a speaking engagement she did last weekend, the class I’m teaching now, the revisions she sent to her editor, my haircut, her date night with her husband, and the fact that we both slept in today. She shared three Bible verses she’s underlined, and I reminded her that she’s underlined her whole Bible. I warned her that I would be blogging about her today, and she reminded me of how I used to be so jealous of her. I told her I would own up to that and then compare her to a double rainbow.
“I’m also going to say something that will make you uncomfortable,” I warned.
“What?” she asked, already uncomfortable at the thought of uncomfortable.
“That Lu wouldn’t exist without you.”
I can’t put it more plainly. Yes, I wrote the book, but she encouraged me to do it at a time in my life when most people didn’t because they couldn’t. Fiction writing is a neurotic space, and it takes one to support one. It’s a lonely space with a firm “No Talking!” rule that’s hard on an extrovert like me (and bliss for an introvert like her). It’s also a nebulous space with an indistinct finish line. Why was I doing this? How would I do it? Would I ever finish? For what? You’re doing this because God called you to do it. You will write it one chapter at a time. You will finish, and God will do amazing things through it.
I wouldn’t have written past Chapter 10 without my writing buddy. Even the loneliest of work isn’t meant to be done solo. I breathed my dream to life when I shared it with Laura. She upped the ante. Send me your work. It took me two months to work up the courage, but I did. It took a little less time to send the next batch and the next batch. Sometimes her response was a green light and sometimes it was a redo, but it was always encouraging and it always made the work real. And so I’ll say it again.
Lu wouldn’t exist without Laura Smith (who is at this very moment writing me a follow-up email about how it’s not her, but God through her and how God used me to do x,y,z in her life and so on and so forth).
I get it. Do you? Good! Buddy up on Day 4 of NaNoWriMo.
If we look around instead of look far, far away for our stories, how do we purpose what we see?
I remember the day I opened my laptop to start Lu. I had the vaguest of vague, vague, vaguey, vague, vague ideas to write a story about how a real girl comes to believe God is real. I wanted Lu’s story to begin with her leaving a place and a relationship. Maybe because the boyfriend cheated? I wrote a couple paragraphs. Now how did I get her out of the apartment? I’ve never had a boyfriend cheat (to my knowledge), but if I did, I’d like think I’d leave in spectacular fashion – just R-E-S-P-E-C-T right outta there. I didn’t want Lu taking the time to pack, but I didn’t want her leaving empty-handed.
A Crock-Pot popped in my mind, and not just any CP – the 1970s pea-green model without the removable bowl, like the one that served as my mom’s weekly countertop chef for her pork chops and cream of mushroom soup. I don’t know why, out of all my childhood artifacts, the CP elbowed its way to the front, but the thought made me laugh. Could I get away with Lu leaving with only a Crock-Pot?
Sure – if it told the reader something about her. A girl who forgoes spending $20 on a new CP with a more innocuous color and a removable bowl is a girl who … thinks about her $20. She’s frugal, and maybe she also doesn’t earn much. I wrote that down. What she cooks in the CP must also fit within these parameters and could be … pork and kraut. This was another childhood staple. You have to grow up eating it to like it. This was how I discovered Lu was Polish, like me. Ooh – and her boyfriend was not! He wouldn’t like sauerkraut, and the smell of pork simmering in kraut all day greets you at the door like a dog. Lu chose to cook it anyway, which is when I realized she was stubborn and that maybe there was more to this imploding relationship than her boyfriend’s cheating.
After he told me he cheated on me, I stood and surveyed our studio apartment. I’d never loved it, but I hated it now. All the “finds” I’d collected from thrift stores and flea markets – tarnished silver candlesticks, vintage posters, threadbare rugs – looked like the junk they were. John could take care of it. He’d probably already called the moving truck. He’d wanted to move for years, but I’d insisted on paying half of our living expenses, and the rent for this place was the best I could do on my barista income. It was one of our many fights.
As was the Crock-Pot on the drying rack. I knew how to make one thing: pork and sauerkraut, courtesy of my polish grandma. John had liked it when we were both broke, but then he became rich and eating leftovers day-in and day-out no longer appealed. That didn’t change it was the end of the month for me, and I was broke. He hadn’t said much about his new girlfriend in his cheating confession, but I bet she didn’t come to the relationship with a pea-green Crock-Pot.
I seized mine.
“I guess your new girl won’t be needing this!” I declared, waving the ratty cord in front of his face before heading to the front door.
Ultimately, that Crock-Pot did way more than carry my character out of her apartment. It carried me through the first chapter of my first book. Writing about something I knew emboldened me to keep writing, and infusing my fiction with reality made it more real, which is important if you’re going to write a story about how a real girl comes to believe God is real.
It’s Day 3 of NaNoWriMo. As you’re looking around for stories, pick some stuff up – stuff that’s familiar, stuff that makes you laugh, stuff that might seem inconsequential. Describe how it looks, feels, smells, handles. What does it say? Articulate that. Now, what can you make it say? This is where imagination comes in and the fun starts, both for you as a storyteller and the people on the other end of it.
Many of our stories follow the same broad themes; it’s the details that make them sing. Who hasn’t heard the one about the boy who cheats and the girl who leaves? But the one about the boys who cheats and the girl who leaves with only her Crock-Pot? We might be on to something.
If you can tell good personal stories, you can tell the big ones, too.
I celebrated Day 1 of NaNoWriMo by going to a story workshop. Total coincidence, actually, but the above nugget they shared got me thinking about one of my friends from high school, Laura Bevacqua. She was my photography buddy and twice as good as me (okay, three times as good because this stuff is quantifiable). It made sense she was going to study photo-journalism in college and move to New York City.
I can still remember these black and whites she took at a flea market. Looking at them made me want to go there, but when I looked at them, I also felt like I had been there. That’s how good Laura was at taking pictures. There was one of an exceedingly large man, so large he rendered the fold-out chair he was sitting in tiny. His pants couldn’t contain his behind. Laura was 16. Of course she took a picture of his peek-a-boo crack. I was 16. Of course I laughed when I saw the picture. I’m laughing now as I write about it.
“Why do you think you need to go to New York City?” I asked her, handing back the picture.
“To get inspired.”
“I think you’re doing fine right here.”
This is the lesson Jo March learns in Little Women – writing about what we know resonates with others. We don’t need to go to New York City so much as we need to look around. We don’t need to strive for new so much as we need to reflect on why we keep returning to certain stories from our lives again and again.
The stories we keep telling mean something to us.
Why? What’s in there? Excavating to these answers will get us a lot farther in our storytelling than a plane ticket to NYC. Plus, everyone goes to New York. It’s a cliche.
Do you know what isn’t?
Flea market. Butt crack.
Look around today.
Why do I blog?
Because I’m a writer. But there’s a lot of stuff to write.
Because I want to make my stuff “known.” But 1500+ blogs are posted every minute. It’s a saturated market.
Because I have all the time in the world. Someday I’ll blog about my 27-hour day. Promise.
Because I love putting my name on stuff. Second only to putting my picture everywhere.
No, I blog because I love to write. For years I kept the writing to myself. My writing wasn’t “real” because I wasn’t a “real” writer. Those words weren’t particularly helpful. In the past few years, I’ve learned to speak some others, and I’d like to share them to encourage you if you’re disqualifying yourself from a dream. That’s why I blog.
November is NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month! It’s the Internet being used for something good by encouraging writers to draft a 50,000 word manuscript between November 1-30. Last year, 200,000 people wrote 2.8 billion words.
This many people writing this many words is plum amazing. I want to spread eagle into this mosh pit, but I can’t. Even with my 27-hour days, it’s not the time. I’d like to delete that last sentence and replace it with another, but that wouldn’t change the truth of the thing [insert dramatic sigh and duck lips].
Do you know what else is true?
Novels aren’t the only stories.
Every time someone asks about our day, we respond with a story. Our social media feeds = stories. Resumes and cover letters are the stories of our work, and pitches are the stories of our offering. Christmas cards are the stories of our year (and journal entries are the stories of what really went down). Everywhere we go we tell stories – a range of fiction to non- depending on the context, the audience, and the type of day we’re having. I woke up at 5AM with one kid puking in his bed and another peeing his pants. The third was probably streaking in the street, but how was I to know because I was too busy hosing down the dog in the pitch black of the backyard because she’d messed her crate again. What was your question? Oh, you want to know how I’m doing. Well I’m just going to be honest here and tell you …
That’s the start of a great story, and that’s what I want to celebrate on the blog this month: The Stories We Tell [Even If You Weren’t Aware You Were Telling Them Until the Last Paragraph]. Why not tell them well? Tell them true? Tell them as only you can tell them?
I’m hoping to hit it all in this NaNoWriMo 2017. I want to post a little something everyday. I have grand plans to bring on some guest bloggers and do some interviews. Perhaps I’ll host a give-away or two. Of course there’s the chance that none of this will work out. Check back in once in awhile anyway. There may be some writing geekery to help out your sentences. Maybe the day’s post will hold a trick to get you started or at least a good laugh. But I hope all of it (if there’s any of it) will encourage you to tell your story … whatever that may be.
Because you can. Because I did, and I’m working with the same ingredients as you (I was just joking about that 27-hour day). 2.8 billion words makes for a lot of stories, but what about yours? Only you can tell that.