Is Your Story Written Backwards or Forwards?

If you’ve researched writing at all, or read any of the many writing tutorial blogs out there, you’ve probably read that you have to write your novel backwards from the ending.

This isn’t a post to disagree or agree with that advice, but rather to explore it. Because this is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now. And I think there is another question closely tied to it:

Is your story a vegetable plant in a garden or a meal at a restaurant?

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Breaking the Silence…

I have not posted in forever because life has been a little bit crazy. What with school, work, and plenty of family I have been taking a break from posting on here. I have been so mentally tired that in my free time all I want to do is consume (reading and watching) rather than create new content. But I think my shaky little boat has stabilized and stopped taking on water and I’m gonna get back into paddling ­čśë

So here are a few things to look forward to:

1. Movie Reviews: I watched the new Star Trek over the summer and very much enjoyed it. I also discovered “Edge of Tomorrow: Live, Die, Repeat” and loved it! And I more recently watched Terminator: Genisys and already have some thoughts of what went wrong and right.

2. I am in the infant stages of branding! My graphic designer (if she reads this she will laugh at me for making myself sound so important) has begun work for me. I can’t promise a timeline for new graphics/book covers, but we are one step closer!

3. I really do intend to write more short stories. After reading “Into the Void,” my friend kept bringing up fringe characters that she found fascinating and I kept texting back: “I know. They deserve more…” There is so much thought behind my characters (even the main ones) and I want to start fleshing it out in short stories. Beyond that, there are some unrelated concepts that I want to develop.

4. I ran into an old supervisor at a baby shower. She read an early manuscript of “The Traveler,” and has been harassing me every since to tell her what happens next. So I was excited to let her know that I am finally working on the sequel. Her enthusiasm was encouraging. I was making some progress up until the summer, but that project too has been on standstill. The characters and plot have been haunting me, though, and I’m gonna get back to it soon.

5. Book Reviews: I haven’t been reading too much science fiction lately, but I do still need to do a review for Starship Troopers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes stories worthwhile and which ones are worth telling. Hope your summer has been filled with ice tea and lemonade and that you are as excited for fall as I am!

Popularized Emotional Dysfunction

Like most lies, its chief danger lies in its subtlety. What am I talking about? I am talking about how popular media propagates the message that emotional dysfunctional people are more interesting (among other things)than well adjusted people. Now, for the purpose of this short post I am defining emotionally dysfunctional people as people who express their emotions in unhealthy/immature ways. An extreme example would be a grown man throwing a tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants. But (you say) surely the media isn’t glorifying the man throwing the tantrum; maybe they’re just portraying the way things are. Maybe. I’m not against portraying an honest picture of humanity, if it’s done well. But I want to explain some of the problems I have with what I call “irresponsible storytelling.”

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Stupid Decisions vs. Bad Decisions

There is a difference. And let me tell you a secret…there may be a few readers out there who enjoy watching the protagonist make stupid decisions and have to face the consequences, but most of us do not. It will drive your smart readers crazy!

Now, this doesn’t mean your protagonist has to make good decisions all the time. In fact, they can make stupid decisions on things that don’t matter (like naively getting cheated out of their money by a used car salesman). Sometimes those things make the character endearing. But if they make stupid decisions at plot critical moments, I am likely to start rooting for the antagonist.

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Why Life is Not Made of Magical Moments

I am not saying that magical moments don’t happen, or that they aren’t wonderful and worth holding onto. But they shouldn’t be what you live for.

Unfortunately, this is too often what films sell us. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that every film should hit us with the grim reality of life. I don’t have much taste for those films, either. And if you’ve read my blog at all you’ll know I am an advocate for using storyteller to instill hope in people. I love inspirational stories. But there is a difference between telling an inspirational story and telling a fluffy tale full of silver linings that gives people unrealistic expectations and makes them discontent with what they have.

Maybe I am the only one who’s struggled with this, but I used to think life was all about magical moments. Granted, there were some valleys in between those mountain tops, but they were just puddles to get through before experiencing LIFE. I have learned since that those puddles are life, too. And even though they can be hard and messy, they shouldn’t be despised.

There may be people out there whose lives really are a series of mountain tops. Congratulations, you are a rare species of unicorn. And I imagine you don’t want to waste much time watching movies because your life is so much more interesting. But for the rest of you out there I have a message for you:

There is beauty in the puddles, too.┬áAnd to be clear I’m not talking about those artificial moments where the girl with the perfect hair, whose main problem in life is to choose between two beautiful men, has a moment of self-realization in the rain, accompanied by nostalgic music. That is only a shadow of true brokenness, and in truth it is still a magic movie moment. Because two minutes later she gets her happy ending. Real puddle moments are when you sob alone in a stairwell (and wipe your snot on your jeans because you don’t have tissues) and no one ever sees you. And then you stop crying, wipe your eyes, and keep going with life because that’s what has to be done. There is no hero music. And there is no one to rescue you.

Believe it or not, when I experienced those moments, I used to say to myself: if I can only get through this, I bet there is a magical moment coming soon. It can’t all be bad, right? But sometimes you go through years of nonstop bad and at the end there is no magical rainbow that makes it all okay, instead there is only “less-bad.”

So here’s my personal resolution: I am going to fight for the things that are important to me and live every day to the full, even if it is a puddle day. Then, if I happen to stumble upon a magical mountaintop moment, I will appreciate it all the more because it wasn’t expected. My life is not on pause, waiting for good things to happen. My life is happening right now in the messy, painful, but beautiful struggles of everyday life. Nobody may see them, and they may not be romantic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning.

 

Context and Why It’s Important

My parents’ bedroom and my father’s office are situated side by side at the end of the hall in the back of their house. Sometimes you can catch them having conversations around the corner. The other day I was sitting just down the hall when I heard my mother’s voice.

“Can I trust you? I would like to, but I just don’t think I can.”

Now I have heard my parents argue and I have heard my mother’s voice when it is under stress. This was different. It didn’t sound like a voice she would use with my dad, but who else would she be talking to in the back of the house? It sounded like she was repeating the lines from some soap opera.

A few minutes later I went into my parents’ room to ask a question. Everything became clear. She had two dresses (freshly dry cleaned) hanging from the bed frame and over on the windowsill was our black cat Max. (And no, he should not be trusted alone in a room with two dresses exposed. To him they might as well be the stairway to heaven.)

If I were the sort of person to jump to conclusions, that whole situation could have played out very differently. Here’s the truth about people though: a lot of them do tend to jump to conclusions. I tend to come from a rare breed–the ones who want to gather all the information they can before making a conclusion. I know it must be rare because people comment on it all the time.

I don’t think I need to explain to you how you can use context in your story. Some of the most infamous pieces of literature are centered around characters taking things out of context, or miscommunication.

Now, to be honest, stories about miscommunication can be infuriating. But as a writer, I have to recognize that people take things out of context all the time. It’s human nature. (Yes, even I do it.) One of the coolest things about human beings is that we can take information, process it, find patterns, and come to conclusions. Our brains are pretty neat. But no one is omnipotent. And we like for things to be wrapped up neatly. So, even if we don’t have all the information, we try to wrap up what we do know and that’s where we get into trouble.

Misunderstanding is part of life and it can be really fun to play with as an author (as long as you don’t torment your reader. Please don’t do that). In fact, I think there is nothing that can so powerfully show the different backgrounds of two people then how they may understand the same statement in two completely different ways.┬áThat’s the kind of misunderstanding I want to play with: the kind that reveals more about my characters.

How You Can Use the Reader’s Imagination to Your Own Advantage

I’ve had a revelation. And I want to share it with you.

A couple of years ago when I finally got myself an actual copy of my favorite science fiction book (up until that point I shared my sister’s), I was particularly gratified by the author’s new introduction. At the end he boldly gives the reader license to claim the story for herself. He urges the reader not to think of the story as one that he wrote┬ábut one he and the reader constructed together. This was a great comfort to me, particularly because I didn’t like all of the sequels and because I know a number of people who misunderstand this book in various ways. I always felt like it was my story in a special way, and now the author gave me permission to understand its nuances in my own way and claim that–not having to worry about “what the author intended.”

And then more recently, I found this quote by Bonni Goldberg: “Endings are the hardest part to write. This is because they are false. Nothing truly ends; it transforms…So it is helpful when writing ends to remember that you are really constructing a passageway, a birth canal, a place where the writer lets go and the work becomes part of the reader’s consciousness, understanding, and imagination.”

And I realized there is something beautiful about paving the beginning of a road and letting the reader finish it in his/her mind. It’s like inviting them into the writing process. Recently I wrote about different types of endings, including Tolkien’s “Return of the King.” Part of the beauty of all his end narration is that you can see everything happening. Sometimes he is very specific about what happens to each character, but he sums up years and lifetimes in a couple sentences. At this point the reader understands and can picture all the scenes playing out. The reader can fill in with his/her imagination what those years were like when Aragorn reigned as king and the hobbits visited him often. Tolkien gives enough information to steer the imagination of the reader.

I am touching up a particular ending right now and am really enjoying planting seeds for the reader. I don’t have to explain every character’s future in explicit terms. I can steer the reader in the right direction with a few, well-planted comments. When they fill in the gaps (even the obvious ones), it gets them more involved in my ending. It will make them feel like it is their own–like they have a part in finishing the ending just by understanding it. It feels like a conversation.

Does Your Boat Leak? or Thoughts on Readers’ Trust

Many years ago, as a young reader and writer, I had the rather misguided idea┬áthat the storyteller’s goal was shock the reader in any way possible. Sometimes I even pictured the emotional reaction of my “readers” with malevolent satisfaction. “Ha! They’ll never see this coming!” It was almost like my imagined readers were my enemy and I had to outsmart and defeat them.

I had probably picked up the impression┬áfrom my very intelligent father who would harshly discard or critique any plot that didn’t meet his intelligent standard. And there one or two stories that broke my heart with their plot twists, but I upheld as golden works of fiction.

As I discussed with my posts addressing cliffhangers, this theme also seems to be prevalent in modern television. Many shows aim high on the drama scale: killing off characters and making characters act irrationally. Their goal is to be controversial. But I have learned that I do not have the same goals.

There are books where you can tell the author respects her audience, and there are books where the opposite is true. Now, I’m not saying that you write purely for your audience, and if you’ve read my blog at all, you’ll know I frequently preach the opposite. But┬áreally it’s just common sense: if you make enemies of your audience, they won’t recommend your book.

I remember watching Jane Eyre for the first time. I had never read the book and didn’t know the story. Bronte does a good job of being creepy. At one point it seemed like there was a vampire in the house. I remember debating whether or not to turn it off. I didn’t want to keep watching it if the explanation was a vampire. But something told me I could trust the author. And in the end it was all explicable.

It may sound exciting to cross genres or throw in shock-and-awe surprises, but sometimes that is just unfair to the reader. If you purchase a book because it is historical fiction and halfway through the author throws in aliens, it can feel like a betrayal.

But this author-reader trust goes beyond “genre crossing.” I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that I want to be an author that readers trust. I don’t want to be the controversial shock and awe author. I don’t want my reader to feel like the boat sprung a leak halfway across the bay. I want to get my reader safely from one shore to the other.

 

Endings: The Cliffhanger vs. the Payoff Part 2

Okay! Where did we leave off? I promised to examine some different endings with you.

  1. The Return of the King
  2. Ender’s Game
  3. Serenity
  4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty/ Midnight in Paris

Just for the heck of it we’re going to start with number four.

Now these are two movies (which I love). But they have a similar ending style. In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Walter is a responsible man overseeing negative assets for LIFE magazine. He has taken care of his family since his dad died. He doesn’t branch out and is afraid to pursue the woman he’s interested in. The movie is about him stepping out, fighting for what’s important to him, experiencing life, and finding his own adventures (instead of daydreaming them). It’s a fantastic movie about not getting locked behind a desk, but experiencing this beautiful world that we live in. In the end, after chasing a photographer around the world, Walter finds the negative that he lost and gives it to the executive who fired him. And he gets the chance to stand up, not only for himself, but for all the men and women who were let go during the transition to online. Then he moves on with his life. He starts job searching. While picking up his severance package he runs into Cheryl and takes the risk to speak to her again. At the end of the movie his life of quiet responsibility is validated and there is the promise of a future relationship with Cheryl. It’s a quiet ending. But the movie was mostly about the journey, anyhow. It delve into the depths of human tragedy so there is no need for a dramatic ending. And his relationship with Cheryl was not the center of the story. The ending matches the tone of the movie: Walter is re-learning what life is about.

“Midnight in Paris” has a similar feel and a similar ending. But this movie is about a struggling writer and his wealthy, controlling fiance. While Walter daydreams about his life, Gil is caught up in nostalgia for the past. Through a bizarre set of circumstances he gets to visit his “dream era” (Paris in the twenties). But over the course of the movie he realizes that he has to live the life he has been given-that to long for the past is to miss out on the present. In the end he decides to pursue his dream of living as a poor writer in Paris, even if it means losing his fiance. At the end, not only do we see Gil contentedly walking through the rain in Paris, but there is the possibility of a new romantic interest. Again, it is a simple ending. There really is no need for extended “payoff” scenes of him living in Paris. He has been working toward this goal and now he found it. The audience can see clearly how his life would go from this point. They have all the information they need to know he’s going to be happy.

Number three on that list is a bit different. “Serenity” is a scifi movie with some pretty heavy content. It has action, it has comedy, and it has fun adventure, but it also delves into the dark side of humanity. River is a girl who has gone through deep psychological trauma at the hands of the Alliance–the same people who try to “fix” humanity and ended up turning a group of people into monsters with no morals. One main character and two minor ones die. Others are seriously wounded. So the ending of this movie can’t be a quick cutoff, or even a vague send off like “Walter Mitty” or “Midnight in Paris.” The movie took the audience through deep emotional waters and now the story needs to lead us to the shore again. When the crew of Serenity accomplishes their mission it is bittersweet, because they have lost so much. So the storytellers show a beautiful funeral ceremony where the characters and the audience get a chance to say goodbye. Then there is a montage of the crew patching up the ship. This assures the audience that they will be able to move forward with their lives, and it also serves for a metaphor of emotional and physical healing. A few quiet conversations wrap up plot points and emotional loose ends. There are seeds of hope for the future. Finally, the Serenity takes off, bursting through the storm and above the clouds (another metaphor). The audience can take it from here.

“Ender’s Game” is perhaps the bridge between “Serenity” and “The Return of the King.” While it is difficult to objectively compare the depth of emotional content there are a couple of factors to take into consideration. “Serenity” is a little far-fetched. The technology, culture, and science are pretty far removed from our own. So although you can sympathize with the characters’ struggles, it doesn’t hit super close to home. The world of “Ender’s Game” is much more similar to ours. And the fact that Ender is a child through the entire book makes him more vulnerable, not to mention that the book is far more psychological than the “rollicking adventure” of “Serenity.” “Ender’s Game” explores themes that we deal with in daily life: self-preservation vs. compassion, the struggle of leadership, being your own worst enemy, and betrayal to name a few. Beside all these conflicts there is the main and obvious one:┬áthe leaders of humanity have to face the guilt of what they’ve done to Ender and Ender has to face the guilt of his own actions. After the major climax, Card takes his time finishing the story, which I have always been grateful for. He explains some of the political consequences. He shows the impact on Ender and the internal struggles he is facing. The solution for what he does next felt a little bittersweet. I didn’t like it much, but it also made sense. But then Card jumps eight or nine years into the future and gives a remarkably satisfying ending. There is redemption and again hope for the future. The reader can now visualize how Ender’s life will go.

And finally…”The Return of the King.” I won’t take too much time explaining the plot (I bet you all know it). The first time I experienced this story was in theaters. If you’ve seen the movie you know that it has several “fake endings.” The screen blacks out for a full couple of seconds before the scene changes. It was like Jackson kept teasing us that it was the end, but then adding in more. And every time the scene faded in again I was so very gratified. Because after such a long journey through struggle, war, hopelessness, and despair you can’t just end it. If any story needs a payoff at the end it is this one. Not only does Jackson give us the payoff in the movie version, but Tolkien did even more so in the book. In the movie the hobbits are saved from the exploding Mount Doom, the Fellowship is reunited, Aragorn is crowned king, and the hobbits return home. All beautiful things that you hoped for. But in the movie version the Shire is unchanged and no one can understand what the four hobbits have been through. And even though Frodo writes about his experiences, he can never fully recover from what he’s been through, so he goes off with the elves across the sea. I was happy with this ending because it matched the rest of the story. How could he return to a normal life after fighting against such evil for so long?

But the book ending is now my ultimate favorite. Tolkien takes a full hundred pages to explain what happens after the ring is destroyed (and this not counting the Appendices). The Fellowship have many conversations with each other. There is the process of Aragorn becoming king and finding the sprout of a new White Tree. He explains how each party goes back to their own land. The hobbits go with the elves to Rivendell for a while before finally returning to the Shire. Of course, anyone who’s read the books knows how vastly different the Shire is in Tolkien’s story. The hobbits have to fight to redeem their Shire. And they do so valiantly.

Either way, this story was so long, the darkness so deep, and the struggle so real that it is only fair to be patient in wrapping it all up. The story could have ended with some profound comments after the destruction of the ring. Honestly, when I thought the movie would end with Frodo and Sam on the rock surrounded by lava, I was okay with it. It would have been bittersweet, but at least we knew they had won. All the additional information is like whip cream on top. Here’s the difference: if the story had ended right there, the audience would have remembered the struggle against Sauron as the main part of the story. But since it went on to show the lives of each character afterward you are reminded that the focus of the story is not Sauron, but each of these dear and wonderful characters. And after all of that emotional impact, when you get to follow the characters into their normal lives you love them more intimately and they root themselves in your heart, and suddenly the story becomes yours forever.

And that’s the kind of author I want to be. I want to tell the full story: the beginning, the middle, the end, and even the “after end” if necessary. Ultimately, I strive to make each ending equal in weight to the themes and climax. I don’t want to play tricks on my readers. I want to give them a full story that they can participate in- a story that they want to re-read because it is like going on a journey with friends.

 

The “Rewrite” Debate

I recently stumbled upon this post and it got me thinking…

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #3…Rewriting

If you haven’t read it, the author claims that nothing good comes out of “rewriting.” He is not talking about editing, proofreading, or adding minor changes. He is talking about when an author goes back and extensively restructures the story.

His claim is that rewriting is a purely critical function, which squashes the author’s creativity. The first draft is the creative draft and therefore worth more. He supplied supporting evidence with multiple examples of writers who swear against rewrites, simply passing through a couple drafts before moving on to another work.

There are a few things that I want to say.

First, I understand the merit in always moving forward. Writers truly do learn by practice and experimentation and I know firsthand the deep trap of holding onto one story and always trying to “fix it.”

However. I can’t believe that stories cannot be “fixed.” The author who wrote that piece above seems to believe that once your first draft is written your creative juices are spent on that project. I disagree. I would like to argue that writers’ minds work differently. My logical/critical mind marries very nicely to my creative mind.

Oftentimes my first draft is courageously creative. I branch out, go wild, and follow my gut. Sometimes my “logical mind” chimes in enough where I have a very strong first draft that only needs a few tweaks. Other times I recognize there are major shortcomings and I try to find what’s wrong.

I have two books which I have rewritten over many years. Yet I would strongly argue that both of these books got better and better. The first book I finished at nineteen. It wasn’t very good–but the characters and the story I wanted to communicate were important to me. So I didn’t give up. Over the next five to six years I rewrote and restructured the novel, keeping the characters and their journeys much the same, but changing major plot points. The second one followed a similar, shorter journey.

I am so glad I didn’t give up on them. I had something I wanted to communicate. I suppose I could have moved on to another novel, but it would have traveled down a similar path. Now I feel like I have finally communicated what I wanted to and done these characters justice.

But I will grant something else: these two projects have often bogged me down and limited the other content I’m writing. The problem with rewriting is that you often work in isolated chunks. It could be infuriating. And it wasn’t until I paused and started a new novel that I saw growth. It was an opportunity to surge ahead. I saw how much I’d grown and I challenged myself anew. It was healthy.

So, again I come back to one of my favorite mantras: balance. I probably need to lean more on the side of drafting and moving forward. But I want to stand up and say that sometimes rewriting a story that is important to you is worth it!