Tag Archives: story

JRR Tolkien

This is the first post of authors that have inspired me or influence my writing.  First up, JRR Tolkien.

Before I get started, let me get one thing out-of-the-way: the overall story arc of  The Lord of the Rings is fairly predictable.  Let’s face it.  Does anyone have any doubt after chapter two that somehow the ring is going to be destroyed?  By the time we get through the council of Elrond, is there any question that Frodo will make it to Mordor or that Sauron will be defeated?  I suppose that is an occupational hazard of writing an adventure quest with a specific goal.  But why then does this story have probably millions of fans (including me)?

Lesson number one for me is that the journey is perhaps more important than the destination.  There are of course important caveats to this statement.  But it can still be compelling fiction even if the final goal is known from the beginning.  Because who would have guessed the fall of Gandalf, or the roles that Gollem,  Merry or Pippen played in story?

Lesson number two is that the book needs to take you to a place you want to go.  Tolkien spent decades building a world that his readers can literally get lost in.  It is so rich, so expansive, that readers are completely drawn in.  And when I read it, I can’t help but get the feeling that this is just a tiny window into a world that is so much larger than could possibly be described in the book.  It is very clear that he believed in it.  I think the world is so real to us, because it was so real to him.

Lesson number three is that the climax is not the end.  I have mentioned before that this is a pet peeve of mine.  Many authors I have read would have had Gollem fall into Mt. Doom, and then write an epilogue that said, Aragorn was crowned king, Frodo and Sam went home, and they all lived happily ever after, the end.  While this would have been okay, how much more satisfying it is to have the houses of healing, the scouring of the Shire, and the Grey Havens.  Also, it is significant to know that while there was a general happily ever after, there were harmful consequences of the conflict that did not just disappear as soon as it was resolved.

It seems obvious to me that Tolkien did not simply write, he created.  And he did so for the sheer love of creation.  That is why his story is classic.

30 day novel

For those who have not heard, I was inspired by the national novel writing month. I thought, what better way to get started writing? I was right; it was a good way to start. Unfortunately for me, I have never been much of a writer or reader for that matter.

Lessons Learned – I will blog in more detail later about these 7 lessons, but for now here they are.

1st – Good stories take time. Most of the 30 days I was developing mythology, history, and learning who my characters are. Now that I know I can start telling the story.

2nd – I lost heart about chapter 5. I had a good story, but I could see my ability to translate that story into words was weak.

3rd – I am more creative when I am happy than when I am stressed or afraid. It was hard to find my voice from stress and fear of failure.

4th – It is very helpful to have support when you lose faith in yourself. Someone who can put things into perspective and cheer you on.

5th – Even though I didn’t like what I produced, it is not wasted. Even if I have to remove those chapters from my book. I learned about some of my characters, my writing style, my mistakes and can improve now that I know.

6th – The rules for entertaining are very different when your performance is dependent on the words you choose for your book, than the visuals, lighting, music and sounds on the stage.  I need to take time to learn how to apply entertaining rules to writing.

7th – Disabilities can be a strength if we let them. You can’t let anything hold you back.  Being unique can attract new readers.

Life Happens – Just because I want to write a book in 30 days doesn’t mean life stops or even slows down.

1st – Some times life gets busier. Christmas time is not the best month for me to take on a 30 day novel. I want to have family time more than writing time.

2nd – I home school my toddler, preschooler, and kindergartener. Finding time to write with 3 kids under 6 can be difficult; add homeschooling to the mix and it can be near impossible.

3rd – Starting more than one writing goal in the same month can be overwhelming. I also decided to start blogging this December. Consequently I spent most of my writing time blogging not noveling. I have heard that blogging is kind of like a warm up for the big things like a novel.  So I don’t feel bad about it.

4th – Another factor that was difficult for me was the fact that this novel was to be a gift for my husband. I was not able to create with him or share really any of my story ideas with him. I have found I am more creative when I have someone to create with me and bounce ideas off of.

So Now What?

Although I did not start and finish a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I am happy with what I accomplished. It was what I needed to get started. I will someday tell the story I found in those 30 days, but for now it is not the most pressing goal I have in my life right now. I need to raise my kids and practice my writing and get blogging. Yes I will continue to work on my story but it will be a year-long project this next year.  I have a great start and look forward to finding the rest of the story.  What are the lessons you learned or advice you would give to a beginning author?

Rewriting Hamlet

My senior year of high school, we studied Hamlet in English class.  Of all the Shakespearean play we studied, it was definitely my favorite, but I didn’t like the end.  Of course, I didn’t want everyone to die, especially Hamlet.  I mean, he has worked all throughout the play to avenge his father’s murder, and has finally succeeded.  Then he dies?  Even worse for me was Fortinbras.  Who was this guy?  He didn’t even make an appearance until the very end, and he gets to just walk on the stage in the last scene and become the king?  It bothered me.  I thought Hamlet and Fortinbras should at least meet.  So when the teacher assigned us to write an essay about Hamlet, I instead rewrote the last scene.  In the process, I learned a couple things about writing.

Small Changes

I ended up keeping virtually all of the dialog from the original, and I only added one or two lines.  And yet, by simply rearranging the lines, that part of the story progressed in different direction.  I learned that very small changes can make a very profound difference to the final story.  There are two ways that this can affect writing.  First, if something isn’t working, a major overhaul may not be necessary to fix it.  Second, rewriting is a art, and if I’m not careful, I could change a lot more than I expect.

Being True

The biggest thing that I learned, however, was that I couldn’t make all the changes I wanted to.  I originally imagined Hamlet fighting (and defeating) Fortinbras, staying alive, and becoming the king.  As I tried to write it, I realized that it really wouldn’t work that way.  The story had been leading in a certain direction, and I couldn’t change it all unless I went back and rewrote the whole play.  In the end, although I had Hamlet fight Fortinbras and beat him, Hamlet still died.  Fortinbras still became the king.  Writing is about finding the story, not forcing it to be what I want.

Rule #2: The Plot is Not the Story

I have read a number of books in my life, and I could categorize them into three broad headings.

First, there are the books that I want to read again and again.  They have impacted me in some profound way that makes me want to experience those books again, because they have more to offer me.

Second, there are books that I have read once, put down, and never really thought of again.  They were not bad books, I simply had other books I would rather read.

Third, there are books that just plain annoyed me.  They were painful for me to read, and in some cases, I have not even been able to finish the book.  I have no desire to ever read them again.

What would cause a book to fall into one of these three categories?  I would attribute it to the difference between the plot and the story.  What is the difference?  My definitions are as follows: the plot is what happens in the book.  It includes everything the characters experience.  The story is what happens because of the book.  It includes everything the readers experience.

The first thing that I take away from this distinction is that, in most books, virtually the entire plot is told directly in the book.  There may be some details that are left ambiguous, so the readers need to fill in the blanks for themselves.  But even in these books, the plot is completely in the control of the author.  The story, however, is created by the interaction of the words in the book with the readers’ imaginations, dreams, and previous experiences.  Obviously the author can only control half of this equation.

So why do I care about the story, if I can’t control it?  Well, I think an author can still have quite a lot of control over the story of a book, but how?

I think one of the most important factors in the story is character development.  If the characters are real, then readers can relate to them.  If readers can relate to the characters, they want to know what happens to them.  They laugh with them, cry with them, hurt for them, celebrate for them.  If characters are shallow or solely ridiculous, they may still serve entertainment value, but the readers will have a much harder time caring whether they succeed at what they are trying to accomplish.  In fact, the readers may even be rooting for those kinds of characters to fail.

Perhaps some literary examples will help to illustrate.

I love Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.  I have yet to read a book by either of them that does not qualify for the first category.  One thing that is interesting to me is that there are not typically epic adventures in their books.  No one is racing off to save the world.  With a few notable a exceptions, their plots generally consist of events that could happen to just about anyone at any time.  And yet, they are some of the most compelling books I have read.  Why?  Because when the characters are real, the readers will follow them wherever they go, whether it is across the universe or across the room.  I also read a lot of fantasy, and find that a character does not need to be human to be real.

Another example is Harry Potter.  First, full disclosure.  Yes, I read all the books.  Yes, I found them entertaining.  No, I would not put them in category one.  They would fall more in the second category for me.  Why?  I think the story in the books is fairly strong.  The interaction between the characters is very spot on.  But I thought the plot was weak.  I found each book to be a little too formulaic and the overall series too predictable.  Yet despite these flaws that I perceived in the plot, I continued to read, because I was interested in the characters.  I had invested too much in those characters to not find out what happened to them.  But when I had finished, I did not necessarily want to read them again.

This brings up another important point.  As hard as I try as an author, I may not reach every reader.  Don Quixote, for example, I gave back to the library after I had read about a third of the way through.  I had simply had enough of a stupid man almost getting himself killed.  It wasn’t even entertaining to me.  It fell into my third category.  Yet there are many people who might place it into the first.

One other thing to note is that while the plot is not the story, the plot does influence the story.  Obviously, a good plot will help to tell the story, though if the readers cannot relate to any of the characters, the plot may not be enough to keep them reading.

Now what do I do about it?  How can I craft a good story?  First, I need to know the characters.  If I, the author, do not know my characters, how will the readers?  Second, I need to consider what is the message of the book.  I had a teacher in a speech class who told us to use the “so what” test when writing our speeches.  She said we should imagine the audience asking, “so what?”  We needed to make sure that we answered that question in the speech instead of forcing the audience to actually ask it.  When I write, I need to take the time every once in a while to step back and ask, “so what?”  Why do the readers want to know this?  Why do they want to keep reading?  What does it mean?

And the readers’ answers will likely be different from mine.  But that is one of the joys of reading.  While everyone gets the same plot every time, the story is personalized to each reader, and is new every time you read it.