Sunday, August 22, 2010

4 Chiming In

How to not lose your friends before you make them.

Okay, so I am by no means an expert on writing. Honestly, I'm not sure anyone ever really is or can be because it's such a subjective thing, but there are skills associated with writing that can be generalized. One of those skills is the handling of backstory.

Backstory can turn into a serious thorn in the side of any author. There's so much to the characters that we want the readers to know and enjoy that it's tempting to put it all in the story from the first paragraph. We can delude ourselves into believing it's needed information and indulge our "creativity" by letting the backstory choke the "real" story.

When writing a story, think of it like making an introduction to someone you've never met - that is, after all, what you're doing. You're introducing readers to the world you've created. Imagine sitting down at a table to introduce yourself and, rather than just converse, the person you've just met starts rattling off their ENTIRE LIFE STORY without preamble or reason. It doesn't matter that this information is the basis of what made this person who they are; you don't need or want to hear it. Beyond that, it's just weird and rude to talk about yourself like that.

Yet, so many times, that's what (especially new) writers want to do with their characters.

Readers don't need a front-loaded version of the character's history any more than a new acquaintance needs the Cliff Notes Guide to You. If you treat a readership like a friendship, and share the information when it's appropriate, then everything will come out when it needs to. There will be mystery and intrigue, and the kind of secrets and kept back information that make a person unique (and tolerable) to those around them. Readers will seek to discover more, rather than force themselves to trudge on.

People can read books written either way, but most will choose to revisit the ones that don't force feed them information like a boisterous guest who doesn't know when it's time to leave the party. Just like people are more apt to visit friends than annoyances.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

6 Chiming In

Woot! *tosses confetti*

July, unfortunately, turned into a useless string of days that sapped all hope of completing my WIP due to that annoyance we call "LIFE". It's like some people out there don't realize I have a very import blog to blather on. They expect me to actually DO something and participate in activities that don't center around my laptop. Sheesh. If someone had told me up front that family was a long term arrangement....


Now for the (slightly more) coherent part of this post:

Since I'm trying to convince my brain it needs to pay attention to the words on screen again, I'm going to unabashedly (<--- GAH! only a month and the adverbs are cropping up like kudzu!) lift my blog topic from Nathan Bransford, who I am more convinced than ever is a robot or an army of clones.

What is storytelling? What is writing?

They can be the same or polar opposites. Writing is what you learn in English lit, but not too many English classes teach you how to tell a story. (Thankfully, I was blessed with 2 English teachers who did just that: Ms. Rob and Ms. Soriano.)

On Nathan's blog, I wrote some sort of nonsensical attempt at literary analysis that said: Writing is pouring your blood on paper and breathing life into your characters, while storytelling is allowing to breathe through you. Sounds kinda pretty, but doesn't really say much, and for some reason, the topic wouldn't leave me alone.

My admittedly (<--- WHY with the adverbs? WHY???) chaotic thought processes started swirling around, pinging off every mention of storytelling ever cataloged in my long term memory before settling on two references:

1 - tribal storytellers

2 - Scheherazade

I suspected my subconscious was trying to tell me something, as it bounced from those two topics to Homer and the bard minstrels, and then finally (<--- okay, someone slap my hands away from the "l" and "y" keys already...) I figured it out --

Storytelling as a silent medium is a fairly recent development. Storytelling existed LONG before the novel (Robinson Crusoe, arguably the 1st work of written fiction was published in 1719). As writer's we're trying to capture lightning in a bottle, and it doesn't want to be contained. It wants to leap off the page and coil around the readers like the scent of sweet smoke tossed into a campfire for effect.

Scheherazade would never have survived her wedding night if she'd thrown a book at the Sultan and said, "just read it". The words are only part of the performance, and that's the key - storytelling is a performance contained in a static medium.

Telling a tale is taking the reader's hand and dragging them behind you like an excited child who can't help but point out every unexpected delight as they run along. You're wanting to show them what happens, they want to explore, and intend to come back after their first read to see what wonders they missed. It's the last bit of magic in the world that refuses to dim and encourages those who stumble across it to clap with all their heart's belief and relight the fire.

It's a thread that connects the past to the future, and the voices of those long dead who continue to live through the words they spoke into being. Their breath catches the next voice and the next until they're spoken out 2,000 years later.

And I think that's why people get frustrated when they discover that the ability to write isn't enough. They look at a book and to them, it's an object still and cold. It has no life or purpose or personality. Sure, you can put pen to paper and write down events, and so long as you have a basic understanding of your chosen language, it's technically a story. But that doesn't make you a story teller; it makes you a scribe.

To tell a story, you have to see beyond the page and feel the breath behind the words that makes the pages rise and fall even when they're closed on the shelf. Books end; stories don't. They go to sleep and wait for the next set of eyes and hands to wake them up. They search for that spark of magic and reach out to fan it high. They pull the reader out of themselves and into the tale so they can see and taste and hear it all.

As haunting as any ghost, a storyteller's words will stick with you long after the covers close. You feel their joy and share their pain. You grieve the loss of those you loved when they die in the tale, but rejoice knowing you can find them again at the story's beginning.

Storytelling is a master's craft.

Anyone can learn to play the violin, not everyone can stand before a full house on a opera stage and inspire utter silence.

Anyone can take shop, not everyone can feel the natural grain of wood and find the masterpiece that was always there within it waiting to be released.

Anyone can grab a paintbrush, not everyone can trap a piece of their own soul on canvas.

Anyone can learn to sing a song, not everyone set their tears to music so the listener cries their own.

Anyone can learn to write. Sadly, most will never learn to tell a story, or realize that the two are not the same thing. They will shake their heads and curse the inability of others to understand when they are the ones who refuse to see beyond the two-dimensional construct in which they try to contain a world that has no natural boundary.