On Writing: The Essence and Passion of a Story

(c) istockphoto, marekuliasz 2011

The following was originally posted at Loose Ends, but I wanted to share here as well for all my writing followers.

Last year Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats tweeted 22 rules of storytelling. Now that I’m knee-deep into a first draft again (writing the sequel to my m/m/m menage MORE), I keep going back to some of those tips she mentioned when it comes to the basics of storytelling.

Two of my favorites are:

“Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.” — Emma Coats

“What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.” — Emma Coats

I think these go hand in hand when writing a first draft. I have to know the basics of what I’m trying to say and I have to be driven to share that story. I believe if the author lacks a passion for writing any particular story, the readers can tell.

When first starting a novel-length book, if I don’t have a firm grasp on the core concept of the story as well as the passion to tell that story, I stumble my way through the first draft, going back over the plot outline and who the characters are at their core until I land on the truth of what I’m trying to say.

Some questions I ask myself:

  • Who are these men? What do they believe about love? What goals do they have in life? What are their biggest dreams? What are their biggest fears? All of these can help drive the plot.
  • What are the basics of the plot in one sentence? One paragraph?
  • What is the ending of the story? What happens just before the ending? How are the characters emotionally impacted by the conclusion of the plot?
  • What in my own life (what experiences, dreams, hopes, imaginations) is influencing me to write this story?
  • What is it about my own beliefs and passions about living life that stirs me to write this story about these characters?

For me the journey of discovering all this is what makes storytelling such a powerful, enjoyable experience. It may stretch out the process of writing that initial draft, but I think my stories would not be the same (and neither would I) without it.

You can read the full list of Coats’s tweets here:
The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar

Lessons Learned Revising Walter and Kevin’s Story

(c) istockphoto.com, marekuliasz 2012

I learn something new with each story I write. Both about me and the craft of writing fiction. As I’ve shared before, my current novel has been through a rocky schedule in terms of the actual writing, but it has had some of the biggest lessons for me when it comes to the “how” of writing.

Here’s what I’ve learned or had reinforced into my writer’s brain this past week:

  • It’s amazing how many bits of dialogue or even entire scenes I thought were important that never make it in the final manuscript. They are the moments that seemed to be at the core of the story and its meaning when I was writing the outline, yet once I’m into the story on a deeper level, those “darlings” just seem to lose their punch. But they were important for the journey. They helped me get to where I wanted the story to go. Writing is a process.
  • I can’t be afraid of moving a scene to a completely new setting. Sometimes I’m telling the right interactions and dialogue in the wrong place. The scene can take on a new intensity in the “right” location. Setting can influence the entire tone of a story. If two characters fall in love while moving from public place to public place, that story will have a very different feel than a story about two characters falling in love while staying at one of their homes, just the two of them for days on end.
  • When I’m stuck on a character’s emotional reactions, I should always go back to the basics. What are the character’s goals, wants, needs? And how are those driving his actions and his responses? I can’t be afraid to make the story primal. Humans are complex creatures, but we are also driven by simple, personal motivations.
  • I have to be “feeling” a scene to revise it. Sure, the writing hasn’t been polished yet, some of the sensory details are missing, and I have yet to write parts of the emotional responses and dialogue, but if I’m not interested in the core of what is going on in the scene, who the hell else will be? I give the scene two chances to pull me in. Maybe I was in a bad mood the first read through or maybe my mind was on something else. If I’m still not feeling it on the second read through, it’s back to the drawing board. Every scene, every interaction doesn’t just need a purpose, it doesn’t just need to move the story forward, it needs to grab the reader and hold on. The least it needs to do is get me excited to revise it.

And yet again, I think I’ve proven how crazy my writing process is, but I’m more than okay with that. It works for me.

Another thing I’ve learned in the past couple of years is to appreciate every moment I’m writing and to embrace the story I’m working on. Each of my novels has been quite different from the others. Over thinking the process and the act of writing, or doing any sort of comparison between works, is counterproductive. Enjoying the journey of storytelling and the characters I’m creating is a big part of what makes writing such a joy.

I try to start every writing session with that in mind.

It’s all about the story.

Quote I Love: Have Something to Say

Lately I find myself ruminating more and more on reader expectations, what makes a good story, and where I want my writing to go in the future. I believe it’s important for authors to write stories they think readers of their genre will want to read, as well as writing with a passion for the story they want to tell. Hopefully those two outcomes will cross paths more often than not. I guess that’s the ideal most authors strive for.

Today I thought I’d share one of my favorite quotes about storytelling:

“Having something to say, or something you wish us to experience, is what gives your novel its power. Identify it. Make it loud. Do not be afraid of what’s burning in your heart. When it comes through on the page, you will be a true storyteller.”

Donald Maass