Authors are often asked where their stories come from and they give a variety of answers: dreams, memories, an event that rattles the insides of their brains and demands to be honored, like the bombing of New York's twin towers.
Kelly Barnhill, who recently won the Newbery Award with her middle grade book The Girl Who Drank the Moon, talked about the book's origins in Publisher's Weekly. She said an image of a swamp monster spouting poetry sparked the story idea. That image percolated and mixed with her interest in how people see the same thing differently, and her setting was inspired by a trip to Costa Rica.
I think most stories evolve like that. A seed's planted, then another and another, growing a jungle of words in our heads. They have to get along at some point, come together in a cohesive way and they have to make us ask "what happens next? That's when our fingers start typing.
The book I'm working on now started with drawings I did of fantasy figures I saw in the wood floor of an old house my husband and I were restoring. I imagined a lonely girl finding those figures and the story was born. Another book grew from a longing to commemorate the days I spent riding and training horses and the last book sprang from living in a dynamic urban neighborhood.
I like to hear the main character's voice in my head before I start, but I'm not always that lucky. Sometimes, I have to write for a long while before that voice emerges. Since I'm a visual person, setting is vitally important. I need to see the world first, to understand the geography, the buildings and environment. If I try to write without that, the world doesn't feel real.
My critique partners and I have discussions about describing our characters. Should we be specific, so readers have clear visuals, or should we be vague so more people can identify with the characters. I rarely know much about my character's physical description at the start of a story. For me, physicality is not nearly as important as personality.
Let's not forget plot and conflict. It's what drives the story and I've learned the hard way not to start a story without knowing the protagonist's goal. If you have a story screaming to be written and you don't know the main conflict, take a deep breath, take a walk, take the time you need to figure that out. Explore issues that are important to you, like Kelly Barnhill's interest in the way people's perspectives color their world. Ask yourself how your interests and concerns might shape your character's world. Then ask what your character wants and what's the worst thing that could happen. Now, you have the start of a solid story.
What are you waiting for? Start typing!
I can't believe it's almost Thanksgiving. Every year seems to go by faster. I'm thrilled to have tapped into my writing muse at this stage in life. But stories are piling up in my head, begging to be told, and books take years to grow from idea to something readers can enjoy. It's hard not to panic.
So I can't help wishing I'd had a guide when I was younger. Someone who steered my education towards writing and illustrating books. Stories have always been in me, just like art. But the art was respected and the stories were hushed.
From first grade on, teachers encouraged my artistic efforts. We moved often and I was insecure. But wherever I went, I could rely on my art. Drawing allowed me to express what I couldn't say in words and connected me with the people who saw it. Then high school ended and there was no one offering advise about the next step in my life. Since I'd always loved school, an art degree seemed like a good idea.
No way was I prepared for the collegiate art world.
I remember staring at a graduate student's display of rubber ducks in a plastic pond and thinking, this is art? Still, I tried to get with the program. I experimented with mediums, painted scenes on household objects, slathered glue on canvases, dragged a rotting fence panel, lampshades and salvaged bits of architecture into my studio at school. My efforts provoked deep discussions and coveted As from professors.
With a bachelor's degree in hand, I contemplated graduate school. But I longed to paint narrative scenes and that was considered archaic. So I took a deep breath, left academics behind and faced the real world. I submitted works to galleries, hung around at openings, wine glass in hand, talking art theory with other artists. I hated every minute. Don't get me wrong. I respect fine artists. We need their art, just as we need the art that inspires clothing, architecture and movies. And I'm grateful for my education but . . .
I'm a storyteller. Plain and simple. And after many years of painting narrative scenes and portraits, I finally listened to the writer voice in my head. I will honor that voice until I can honor it no more.
My advice to teens is this: Ask yourself who you are. Make a list of all the things you love and the things you love to do. Journal and draw to connect with what's deep inside you. If you have a mentor, share what you've learned about yourself. Then explore your options before you make college or career choices. Not that you can't change careers or college majors (and don't be afraid to if you've entered a program that's a poor fit). But getting it right in the beginning offers a lifetime to create the work you were meant to create.
In the meantime, I wish you a delicious Thanksgiving. My sketch for today is the scruffy, plastic draft horse that sits on my desk. He has a most important job: holding my special writing bracelet. But he doesn't have a name. And who knows he might have a story one day, so I better fix that!
Where's your favorite place to create? In your room at an easel or desk, on your bed or the floor? On a comfortable limb in a climbing tree, or underneath it, a sturdy trunk at your back?
To your left is the desk where I write. I didn't use to be this messy. When my work was drawing and painting, my studio was tidied at the end of each day. Before stories took control of my life, dust bunnies didn't breed under my furniture and weeds didn't rule my yard.
Now it takes a heroic effort to abandon my writing and focus on house or garden. And often, as I'm herding dust bunnies, the characters in my head demand I leave the dust and pick up a notebook. If I'm away from my computer for too long, I start feeling twitchy.
When I was a child, I'd create anywhere. Give me a crayon or pencil and scrap of paper, I'd draw and draw and draw. Busy restaurants, parades, grown-up parties, I didn't notice. I was one with my art. Then as I neared teenagerdom, I craved privacy. I drew in my room, on the bed or floor. But now the whole house is mine. It relies on me to keep it safe from dust and grime. My yard hopes I'll protect it from weeds and strangling vines. My husband hopes I'll remember to feed him and wash his clothes. The dogs don't hope anything. They never let me forget them for one second of the day.
I need my room at the back of the house where writing happens. Dogs are allowed but husband knows to tiptoe in the door and if my fingers are madly typing, he tiptoes out again. While the story streams from my mind to the keyboard, things pile up on my desk: books, manuscripts, notebooks, favorite birthday cards, photos of people I'd like to see more, and paper scraps where I jot important things. I've tried to fight the clutter. It returns within days. In fact, this post was meant to be about Spring cleaning. Alas, my desk still looks like the photo and it was taken weeks ago.
Truth is, a clean desk isn't important. Claiming your space is. Wherever you live, respect your needs as an artist and writer. Find the place and conditions that work best for you. Make time in every day, hunker down in that space and create. And if someone is screaming at you to clean up your room, draw the dust bunnies first!
For Christmas, Teddie, the much adored leader of my critique group, The Skyway Writers, gave each member a beautiful, red-beaded bracelet. Now, I wear it every time I write. It makes me feel connected to my talented peers as I sit at my lonely desk, trying to find the right words to tell a story only I can tell. I love starting the year with a positive new tradition.
I announced at the end of last month that I planned to steer this blog in a new direction. My focus will be encouraging teen readers, writers and artists. There's no better way to start than by celebrating great books. This week, one of my favorite authors, Kate DiCamillo, won the John Newbery award for the second time with her latest book, Flora and Ulysses. Have you read it? I haven't and I'm eager to get my hands on it. I've loved all her other books so I know what to expect. That's the thing about favorite authors. They don't disappoint.
I'm blessed to have a husband who loves story as much as I do. He grew up in a reading household and he keeps a book within reach at all times. He also has a flexible mind. Which is a huge asset when I need to plot story.
I like to brainstorm away from the distractions of home. We walk a couple miles every morning and story often accompanies us. It usually starts with a plot point; a snag or stall. This morning, I had reenvisioned the beginning of a YA book. I shared it with my husband and we began to fill in the empty spaces. Birds trilled, frogs croaked, and peafowl honked. We automatically waved at passersby leaving for work. Our feet carried us down the path, while our minds plotted story.
We stopped briefly to check out the creek, flowing after recent rains, and again the marshy field where last week we spotted a mallard and her seven ducklings. Then our chat continued to the rhythm of our steps. The subject was apocalyptic. When I finally looked up several houses from our home, I laughed at us, the frumpy, middle-aged couple plotting the worlds' destruction on our bucolic walk.
Sometimes, we brainstorm story in the car, losing track of our destination until one of us blinks at the road and announces, "We missed the turn!" At the cafe where we like to eat breakfast, I force myself to focus on the waitress until our order is served. Then story is tossed across the table, seasoning our food with plot. It's no wonder so many authors acknowlwdge their spouses and children on the inside covers of books. Family--good listeners and eager plotters--deserve credit for their part in the story.
January feels like a pause between the holidays and spring, which usually comes to Florida in mid February. But this year we've had a mild winter and the trees and ladybugs have declared spring early.
It's hard to stay inside. My husband and I have lengthened our morning walks, exploring new territory. I'm fascinated by scenes viewed through portals-like openings. They seem like invitations to explore . . .
. . . or intros to stories.
There are stories everywhere I look. Like these otters romping in a tree stump. Is the face in the wood a self portrait of the artist? Was he inspired by creatures he saw in the creek that runs alongside the stump?
On the way home, we found two tiles scattered beside an intersection. We flipped them over and united them. Were they tossed out a car window? Are they mourning love lost or celebrating new love? How can the imagination not be sparked by this mystery?
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. And creatures, always creatures. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor