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Unlocking Stories

January 19, 2010

Dale has been called away today and unable to post, so I’m wiggling myself into Dale’s shoes, rearranging his desk, hiding the pencils,  flipping the calendar onto the wrong month, bouncing up and down on his chair and re-recording a joke message on his answering machine. All in all being a right pain….but seriously…

… stories come from all sorts of places.

The longer I write the more I have come to appreciate where stories come from and in many cases, what unlocks them. For years I didn’t write because I didn’t know what the key was for me. It turns out I write best when I’m given a prompt. This is how I uncover the stories waiting to be written.  (When I say prompt it includes, as Marissa mentioned in yesterday’s comments, a song lyric which lodges in my head and wont move, or a crazy premise which MUST be explored)

When I was finding my writing rhythm again I participated in Fiction Friday as many weeks as I was able to. Freed from the need to ‘think something up’ (and before my radar was really honed)…  I was left with the adventure of taking the key to unlock what was behind the door of creativity. I still feel a prompt is like a hotel swipe card which will take me to the ‘other side’.

But it isn’t always an easy transition to a story – even with the assistance of a prompt. Sometimes it feels like I’m in stuck in Dr Seuss’s ‘the waiting place’ from his wonderful book Oh The Places You Will Go, especially when there is no light bulb moment and a story seems more and more like a far fetched idea the longer I wait.

I used to feel as though I were an unlucky fisherman, continually casting and dragging in nothing but a slightly nibbled piece of bait. I used to freak out and lose faith in my abilities as a story teller. Now I’ve learnt the hard lesson of patience (anyone who knows me will tell you I am very, very impatient person in many regards, so it has been an excruciating lesson to learn.)

If I can keep the prompt or the theme (in the case of writing for some anthologies) in my head then sooner or later something will be drawn to it and the story will take off. Perhaps there is a good dose of faith in there too.  Rather than the image of the lone fisherman casting a line, I’m a fisherman casting a net and calling out to other fisherman close by, laughing and joking as I go about my work. Patience with benefits!

While patience is important I need contact and quiet to synergise a story.

Contact is engaging with people, places and often music. It is watching and listening (virtually or in reality), articulating/sharing the prompt and any shreds of ideas I have on the story or in dire moments, asking for someone else’s take (more on this later). But mostly it is about being out in the world, at large – after all, life isn’t a static exerperience. I know sooner or later something will happen.

Quiet is more about space than volume, and a lot about being open to receive a story. The best thing about this is many day-to-day activities provide this space. Driving is the biggest one for me and I often feel guilty about the fact when I’m supposed to be most alert, I’m often lost in thoughts, being led astray by plot ideas or character’s whisperings.

I’d like to share two examples from two stories I wrote last year, Taping Lydia and Bondi, to illustrate the process of contact and quiet, and how stories can use the same elements but evolve very differently.

Taping Lydia was based on a Fiction Friday prompt. I knew within a couple of hours just what would happen between the characters but the mundane item with magic powers (the prompt) was beyond me. I wracked my brain trying to come up with something. It came to me in a quiet moment, sitting at the traffic lights not far from home. It was as though it just floated across from the ‘other side’… almost like the characters whispering in my ear ‘tape recorder’. Even though I had it all there, I shared it with my partner and his best friend who was visiting at the time, who gave me some subtle but interesting ideas on how I would lay the story down.

In November, in the throes of NaNo I agreed to participate in Jim Wisneski’s 12 Days of Christmas project. I chose the prompt of seven swans a-swimming. Immediately my head was filled with images of ballet. I felt intense sadness and longing. How it all went together I had no idea. But the longer I played with the images and feeling, turning them over and examining them from all sides – nothing came. This is when panic hit. I needed an idea. The 10th December deadline was rapidly approaching and I needed time to write, to get the draft critiqued and rewritten.

Then two wonderful things happened, which then lead to a third.

I noticed a tweet from Australian writer Claire Halliday about bureaucracy gone crazy around the simple act of busking Christmas carols. This gave me one lead on the story – a leg in, but I needed more. There were no swans involved.

The swans were constantly tripping me up. In the end I asked one of my friends, who wouldn’t pick up a book and read in a pink fit, the first thing which came into his head when I said seven swans a-swimming. He said the AFL football team, the Sydney Swans. Bingo! I had the second part – not just how to include the prompt but it gave my story a setting Bondi Beach, Sydney and another character – the antagonist. Choosing to cast my net well beyond my regular sphere of contact turned out to be incredibly valuable for me and a lesson I won’t readily forget.

But how did it all fit together. I had a busking nightmare, an inappropriate frolic in the sea with some football players and the location of Bondi. The binding was missing.

As I was dozing off to sleep, a few days later, some lines of dialogue came to me and the central element which bound the rest arrived. It was my central character – a sad, trapped woman living 15 floors up in a penthouse apartment – on Bondi Beach. The dialogue was her inner monologue. I wrestled with the idea of getting up – it was November after all. In the end I sat at my desk and poured out a 1000 words, then got a good night’s sleep. Many days and hours of writing later I found out why she was sad and trapped, the second draft was written and eventually a week later, after some intense critiquing and rewriting I had the final story simply called Bondi.

For me, to take the journey from reality into fiction, I don’t just need the key (the prompt) but also patience, contact and quiet. Knowing what I need means I can do my best to best facilitate each dimension of that need.

What do you need to flush out a story? How important are prompts to your procoess writing?

Next Monday, when I’m back in my chair, I’ll share some ideas on how to maintain a sense of creative quiet and how to ferret out what generates offending mental and creative clutter. Until then enjoy Emma Newman’s How Tea and Shivers Make Short Stories, a wonderful deconstruction of her creative process – from prompt to short story.

Jodi Cleghorn would like to give Dale a plug! You can find more of his writing at Rough Draft and read exerts of his fantastic story Not Myself from Chinese Whisperings: The Red Book. Dale’s story is mentioned in Dan Powell’s review of The Red Book. Keep well Dale and I promise I didn’t really do any of those nefarious things!
  1. adampb permalink
    January 19, 2010 3:56 am

    I like the idea of a prompt, a way of getting my mind ticking over and exploring possibilities. I have started with my first Fiction Friday prompt (this week) to see what I could come up with (will post this Friday *gulp*). I like the constraints that a prompt offers, as well as the avenues for development once the idea gets moving. I think that for a novice writer, having boundaries, as a prompt offers with a specific situation, is beneficial as it keeps me focused.

  2. January 19, 2010 4:19 am

    Looking forward to reading your Fiction Friday Adam. It is so nice to have another Aussie around the traps. I’m still to commit last week’s prompt to ‘paper’.

    And Fiction Friday, as I mentioned in my column, was where it all started for me. A friend referred me here and I haven’t looked back. It was an important way to get writing, get connected and get read. Good luck.

  3. January 23, 2010 4:56 am

    Yes, that patience thing is tricky, isn’t it? Ray Bradbury likens creative ideas to cats (I so love that man) – if you try to grab at them they run away. But if you’re patient, walk away and pretend to do something else, they’re desperate to get close to you. Then when they least expect it, grab them!

    Thank you for the mention of my little club 🙂

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