Tag Archives: Creating tension

DISCOVERING THE ROOT OF OUR STORIES

My mom asked me to stay while she napped. “Take a nap, honey…on my bed.” I couldn’t refuse my 92-year-old mom. Plus, her air conditioning felt wonderful. We had just come back from being outside on a very muggy day. She quickly dozed off on her small couch. I sat close by on her twin bed and looked around her studio apartment. I was tempted to stretch out and nap, but I was too distracted.

I found myself studying all her favorite things – fragile figurines, throw pillows, antique lamps. Then, I honed in on the walls, studying decorative plates, framed art prints, framed photos of my parents wedding day… I disappeared into studying everything on her walls and atop her furniture. I felt a bit comforted. Afterall, I grew up surrounded by all these things. They were home. My mom was an incredibly talented decorator. Our home was beautiful inside. Every plate, print, figurine had a specific place. And a story. She bought most things at antique stores or from collectors out on farms. In a way, she had bought someone else’s “story” and then went on to create her own. I admit, I didn’t appreciate these things growing up. My chore was dusting them. But then I learned to negotiate with my brothers, so I could mow the lawn – and one of them was happy inside dusting away!

My mom let out an occasional snore as I tip-toed around her little apartment. I wanted to stand close and get a good look at things. I got a bit misty eyed, thinking about all the stories behind them. I was surrounded by story. Then, it hit me. Lots of these things have shown up in my fiction writing – in my character’s homes, in my themes, plots, etc. How could they not, I suppose… Afterall, they are still deep in my roots. These things. Each one holds so many stories. Each one holds part of my story. Each one.

Cards and letters: A red file next to her phone contains recent cards and letters from her kids. Growing up, she stored cards and letters in a mini wood trunk. I love having my characters write or receive letters. And I’m over the moon just imagining one of my characters opening a drawer, then discovering a bunch of letters. I get so excited about the “and then and then”! Especially when a letter holds a secret.

Framed photos: Many black-and-white photos decorate her walls; many feature her parents and grandparents. I never knew them. They were born in Poland, but my mom never told their stories. Oh my gosh! One of my characters is growing up in a Polish family. Even though I only saw my Polish relatives a few times a year (and they taught me how to polka), I never knew their origin stories, their roots. Perhaps, I have desired “finding” them in my writing. Actually, I have.

Shoes: Her brown leather lace-up shoes sit on the floor across from her couch. They have sat there ever since she started wearing a pair of white Reebok shoes. I always picture my character’s shoes, even if I don’t mention shoes in my story. The color, the brand, the style. I’m especially intrigued with why my character would choose a certain shoe.

Landline telephones: My mom has three landline phones, each within a few steps. In our teen years, my brothers and I were always vying for our one landline. All of my YA’s take place in the days of landlines. I prefer the challenge inherent in a landline, such as a family eavesdropping, everyone racing to the ringing phone…

Clocks: There are four clocks spread throughout my mom’s. I remember the obnoxious sound of our cuckoo clock while the seven of us ate Sunday pot roast. Despite my struggle with chronology in writing, I thoroughly enjoy giving clocks a major role. Nothing like an alarm clock startling a character! By the way, my childhood kitchen clock hangs in my writer studio.

Here’s to the finding, discovering the root of our stories, where ‘er they come from! Children’s author E.E. Duncan summed it up best: “It’s interesting to look to ourselves and find those themes that recur in our writing and discover their roots.” Elizabeth is a member of my amazing critique group, Story Spinners. Her biographies and historical fiction explore how history affects everyday people. Her books include, Florence Sabin, Teacher, Scientist, Humanitarian; Felipe and Dolores Baca, Hispanic Pioneers; Ralph Carr, Defender of Japanese Americans; Helen Hunt Jackson, Colorado’s Literary Lady.

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Filed under Karen McChesney

I WRITE, BECAUSE…

I write because it’s my

rock,

church,

wrinkles,

pain,

loudest laugh,

amid deep doubt

on mornings when I’m convinced the birds are singing,

“scrap it, stick with vacuuming.”

Second chance,

even when revision and I aren’t getting along.

Need for risks,

such fun to throw terrible twists at my characters.

Addiction to curiousity

and what, where, when, why,

by the way, how the heck did my research lead to the story of the chef who made the world’s largest dumpling,

and then on to 10 synonyms for said

that I’ll delight in using way too many times.

Decisions,

as complex as Colorado weather

and a one word sentence.

Seeing through lotsa lenses,

each a chance to make metaphors,

as like

and like as.

One what if after what if,

navigating the creative mess I’ve made.

Commitment to writing The End.

Reminder to trust

and hope,

oh, please, may my 10 years of revising

90,000 words make some sense!

I admit, it’s often my desperate attempt to whittle, whittle away at a chunk of wood

seeking the perfect knot

that I want to sand, buff, stain,

repeat;

and often, it’s a return to my rebellious teen,

sneaking up the stairs after curfew

with secrets of my doings deep in my Levi’s pocket;

and often, it’s my science lab,

experimenting with wit,

but, ending up with the same result,

me laughing at my same corny ideas.

Raw truth,

much, much better than any mirror.

Every wee fear,

including those I haven’t met.

Pillow and blanket,

especially when I want to hide from characters that I can’t bear to inform:

“I don’t know if you would laugh or cry over this matter.”

Giddy childhood,

when my four brothers and I wrapped towels around our necks

and raced our bikes two miles to the public pool,

competing all day for the biggest cannon ball splash

and finding enough coins on the concrete to buy Baby Ruth’s and lemon drops.

Freedom,

flying down a mountain on my bicycle at 40 mph,

hearing only air,

only!

Tuner,

honing in on how-to’s,

like my character’s nervous habit,

or, whether she should whine, sigh or snicker.

Adrenaline rush,

when rarely, oh so rarely,

six sentences in a row,

flow,

flow,

as if my character is in charge.

Admission

to the humbling fact,

yes, my characters will lead,

if you would listen,

they’d love to whisper:

“Get your ego out of the way, god damnit!”

Shower,

making sure I scrub deep, bid farewell to the filth and start all over.

Challenge

that wakes, sparks and jests me,

like when I hide dark chocolate in the freezer,

yet, keep avoiding, avoiding

till I must have a bite,

and then, you know what happens next,

I eat the whole bar!

Shovel,

reminding me: dig up, dig up, dig up the muck,

more,

more,

because, beneath is the real stuff, THE story,

arriving at an unexpected reality sign:

“welcome to the story you never knew you were telling!”

My rescue crew,

always ready with a

hug,

wisdom,

feedback,

nudge,

prayer,

a plethora of ideas,

edits,

commas,

periods.

Fresh baked paper

just out of the oven,

ready for my pen to

dabble,

let go,

forgive,

say hello,

how are ya,

goodbye

to mom, dad, brothers, best buds.

Stories

I write,

because,

I always have.

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Filed under Karen McChesney, Main character, Revision process, Uncategorized, WORD NERD

Create Tension on Every Page

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

I don’t know about you, but I have an entire shelf in my writing studio packed with “half-read” books on craft. I buy them with the best intentions, but here’s what actually happens: I start the book, read four or five or six chapters, do many of the suggested exercises, feel inspired, and go back to revising my novel. I tell myself I’ll revisit the “craft book,” but rarely do. Until now. A few weeks ago, I took Donald Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK back off the shelf and flipped it open. And believe it or not,  I read every single page and completed every single exercise. No joke.

But why this book? And why now?” Here’s what I think happened. 1. My novel was ready for this level of revision. It had been edited and revised many times, but was missing the icing on the cake – the extra pizzazz and sparkle needed to draw my readers in. 2. WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK is a workbook and invites you to write inside it. It has tons of blank spaces and lines. The book speaks to you and says, “Hey, let’s think more deeply about your characters, your plot, your setting. Go ahead – do it. Right now. And I did.

I sat at my desk, pen in hand, and poured through the exercises. I changed the motivations of secondary characters, made my protagonist go to her “third” level of emotion, and amped up the action wherever I could. But the most valuable suggestion came at the end of the workbook where I was challenged to create emotional tension on every page. This was the most elaborate exercise of all and could not be done in the workbook. I had to work with the actual manuscript and do the editing, one page at a time, out of order. One writing friend said she printed her manuscript, threw the pages on the floor, and gathered them up in a mishmash. This seemed a bit messy to me, so I switched on the teacher part of my brain and came up with a plan. I would make a make a graph! I went online, printed out a rectangular chart of squares numbered 1-200, and got to work.

Next, I took my yellow highlighter and colored in a square at random – 104. Then I opened my computer, pulled up my novel, and scrolled down to that exact page. I read slowly and critically, editing specifically for micro-tension. When I was happy with the revision, I grabbed my marker and found another square­ – 185- and repeated the process. Then I picked 36 and went to a totally different place in the book. It was like playing bingo or doing a jigsaw puzzle.

And here’s the exciting part. Along with editing for tension, I was able to accomplish a number of other editing tasks. I shortened sentences, got rid of unnecessary dialogue, found (and deleted) repetitive words, increased my use of metaphors and corrected punctuation. I also found a number of typos – ugh! It was exhilarating, despite a few snafus. The main one was page changes. After editing out complete paragraphs, or even a sentence or two, my page numbers were no longer accurate. I would go to page 32 and discover that it now contained the content from page 33, which had already been edited. Another issue was stopping myself from going on to the next page. It was so tempting to finish a chapter! But jumping around in your story is key with this exercise. It makes you hone in on a scene and make it the best it can be.

Do you have books on craft collecting dust on your shelves? Take one off the shelf and get reading. Do it. Right now!

Have you edited for tension on every page? If so, what were your strategies, pitfalls, and takeaways?

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Filed under Rondi Frieder