Monday, July 28, 2014

Gathering the Threads of a Story

I have been posting on Mondays, but didn't get a chance to do so last week because I was visiting friends and we had no electricity, no telephone, etc. I explain below.

Readers ask writers a variety of questions but most of them are standard and expected. The most common is, Where do you get your ideas? This is never easy to answer because the answer is, Life. But during a recent vacation in Washington State, I watched an incident that I suspect will be part of a story in the future.

During a visit with friends in Mazama (pop. 200), in Okanogan County, Washington, we watched a column of deer, young bucks we first thought, trot and gambol across the open lawn, heading to the highway where they crossed almost every day. They had come from a woodland, crossed a river, and scaled the bank, a regular route. They were quickly gone but just as quickly one returned, diving into the garden and falling behind a bush. It was obvious from the gait that this one was injured, apparently nicked by a passing car or truck. Traffic moves fast coming down Washington Pass onto the first straightaway despite signs warning of wildlife crossing.

The other deer came back and nosed what we now thought was an injured doe, since we didn't
see the knobs of the young buck. The healthy animals lingered, grazing and dancing closer and then away. One seemed to nuzzle the doe. After a short while they left, again crossing the road. The doe tried to get up, failed, and fell again. Some time passed before she tried again, but she did, and when she got to her feet and moved into open ground, the damage to her leg was obvious and painful to see. The left foreleg dangled, bloody and torn. She took a moment to steady herself, then limped to the riverbank and somehow made it
down to the water. The river was still deep and the current strong, but after being carried perhaps thirty feet she managed to get a footing and clamber onto a small beach. She disappeared into the woods.

My friends and I commented sadly on the doe's fate. She couldn't live long with that much damage to her foreleg. Getting to her feet had been a struggle, and without agility she had little defense against predators. We knew a lynx lived in the area; my friends had seen it in their yard.

Late that evening the other deer returned, nosing along the garden in search of their missing
friend. After a while, finding nothing, they crossed the river to the woodlands. Watching deer cross the river to their nighttime haunt had always been a pleasant end to the evening. Every year we spotted the deer as we sat on the deck and stared up at Goat Peak, watched clouds float over the Cascades, and enjoyed the evening breeze. But this evening we thought about the diminishing herd. A neighbor had counted seven crossing her property recently, and today we had seen five, learned one was a doe, and that one would no longer be traveling with the others. The herd was down to four.

Mazama and Okanogan County was fighting the worst wildfires in its history, and that held
most of our attention. The fire had meant the shut-down of power, so without electricity and water we needed supplies. We drove south, counted clouds of smoke over ridges, and found any number of other people trying to learn what was going on. We knew towns farther south had been evacuated and others had suffered terrible losses. The firefighters were doing everything humanly possible but fire is relentless and unpredictable.

The following morning, while filling buckets with river water, we spotted the doe. She had
come down to the sandy beach to drink from the river. To my surprise her leg was clean of blood, and though her foreleg still seemed useless, she managed to get through the brush to the river. I did not expect to see the animal alive again, but there she was. The minute she saw us she fled with alacrity into the brush. I tried to get a photograph of her, but captured a mere flicker as she disappeared.

This is not the story I will write. It is a thread in that story, a contrasting strand that will highlight one aspect, or perhaps a filament to shimmer on its own.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Images and Reality

The newest issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine features one of my stories, "Francetta Repays Her Debt to Society," as well as several other great tales of life on the edge. The image on the cover made me cringe--a woman walks the edge of a razor, to let us know that Joseph D'Agnese's story "Harm and Hammer" will take us to the edge.

I have been mulling over the idea of imagery, and images we use to represent what we do. As a writer I sit at my desk every morning, turn on my MacAir, and begin typing. I don't print anything until I have a complete text to edit on hard copy. If I'm working on a short story I want the entire story, which I will review once or twice on the computer before I print it out. If I'm working on a novel, again I want the entire story in the computer before I begin printing. So why should I mention this?

Image courtesy of Simon Howden/ 
Whenever I come across an article on writing I never blanch or blink at the images used to alert the reader to the topic. The image could just as easily be a quill pen sitting on a sheet of parchment as an old typewriter. I'm less likely to see a computer keyboard or a CPU. Since I only work on a laptop, I don't even see a CPU on most days. The towers that used to sit under my desk, and on which I stubbed my toes every day at least once, don't seem to be iconic enough to tag a story on writing.
Image courtesy of Zoelavie/
Dreamstime Stock Photos
This is pretty peculiar if you think about it. I have yet to notice an article on photography that relies on old cameras of any sort to alert the reader about what is to come. The image is most likely one of the newest models, perhaps one promoted by an advertiser of the site. Another expected image is a photographer with a very fancy lens, the Holy Grail of amateurs and the required equipment for the professional.

Image courtesy of Editorial/
Dreamstime Stock Photos
I don't know why there is this difference between the two art forms. Perhaps taking up a tool to begin writing seems more romantic than other activities, less tied to technological advancement than other artistic endeavors. But then why writing and not painting? If I ran across the image of a man in a beret and smock holding a palette and brush I'd think the designer of the site was mocking artists.

Perhaps the answer lies in the way writers use technology. We have programs to help us plot, and to identify misspellings and grammatical goofs, files to hold research notes located on line, but none of this creates the story. I don't know the answer, but I admit that I love old typewriters and I never mind the images that pop up on the screen to tell the reader, This is about writing!

Monday, July 7, 2014

How to Begin

Every writer faces the blank page. If we have managed to finish at least one story or essay, we have learned one or two ways to begin the work. I recently had coffee with another writer who had worked primarily in the publicity/marketing side of the business, letting her own writing sit neglected in a file while she did other things. During our recent chat, she asked the big question. “How do I begin?” She knew what she wanted to write—the many stories she had collected over the years—but she couldn’t find a way into the mountain.

After a writer has written and published a number of stories, novels, articles, reviews, and more, we begin each project often without even thinking about it. But if I stop to consider the question, how to begin, I know I have several techniques that I use implicitly. Each project is different, fiction or nonfiction, short or long, humorous or serious, scholarly or more popular. Each characteristic will affect to some degree the beginning, but several techniques are applicable for almost every situation.

First, when I open to the first blank page I already have an idea of what I’m going to write. If it’s a
short story, I have been carrying around in my head the idea of the characters for perhaps a few days. I’ve been toying with an opening sentence, or a phrase that has stuck in my head. I sometimes write the opening sentence with pen and paper, to get a sense of the rhythm of the line and the story. I might tinker with it a bit, editing, rewriting, but I soon type it and go on from there. In the third Anita Ray, I knew I wanted the story to open with a scene about the monsoon and the threat to a particular person. I edited this opening several times but the original scene remained.

Second, the beginning of the work on subsequent days is also a challenge. I reread what I have written the day before, do light editing, and continue on. Some writers leave the final sentence of the day unfinished and use that to force (or inspire) themselves to continue. I haven’t used this technique and admit that it doesn’t appeal to me.

Third, if I am pushing myself to get started on something, usually nonfiction with a deadline, and I can’t come up with an opening line, I make a list of the ideas I want to cover, using short phrases or single words. I organize these and out of this process usually comes what I think of as the strongest aspect of what I want to say. Once I have discovered the idea of the sentence, I begin composing.

Fourth, fiction is a journey for both reader and writer. If I’m not confident how to begin, I pick a scene anywhere in the story and start writing that. I describe where the character is, what the setting looks like, who’s there and who’s talking or doing something. Out of this I find the first sentence.

Fifth, I keep a notebook of ideas and phrases or sentences I like, even if I have no idea what I’m going to do with them. I will never use most of them, but I can go to that material and comb it for something that sparks my imagination and can serve as a first sentence.

Sixth, this suggestion comes after every other one has been tried. Every writer wants her opening to be as strong as she can make it. We edit and rewrite and polish the opening probably more than any other passage in the story. Sometimes the best opening is discovered halfway down the first or second page, when we’ve used the already chosen first sentence to get our brain turned on and start a flow of creativity.

In my first Mellingham mystery I struggled with the opening, and in the end wrote three opening chapters. When I realized what I’d done, I read until I found a sentence that seemed to shift and move forward. I amputated the mss at that point, deleting three and a half chapters and making the entire story tighter and tidier.

Seventh, if the story feels strong but the opening won't come, I pick up a book by a favorite writer and read the opening of several chapters. This gets me into a better frame of mind, I don't feel so stuck, and I'm relaxed reading the work of writers I love. In the end I will probably delete whatever I come up with, but the point is to start moving forward.

These and other suggestions will help writers get down the first words of their writing project, but no one should spend more time worrying about how to begin than beginning. Whatever we write for an opening can be reviewed and deleted or improved. The point is to begin and let the characters in the story live their lives on the page.