Back To Basics: Writers’ Boot Camp

by Miko Johnston

Have you been writing? No? I hear you. We can’t seem to find the energy, or the creativity, to write. Even though we have a file full of ideas to play around with, or a started piece, or a half-finished manuscript. Even though we have plenty of time to write with no excuse other than the million other things we can be doing. Cleaning out the hall closet. Again. Thinking of a new way to use canned tuna.  Researching unfamiliar candidates on my primary ballot – maybe I would want the next governor of Washington to be Goodspaceguy* : )

I sympathize. It took me a few months to get inspired enough to write again (see my last post).  If you’re still stuck in neutral, I’m here to help get you in gear. And what better way than to get back to basics – how to write a story.

WHAT IS A STORY?

A story is a fully formed concept that has a beginning, middle, and end, plotted with characters, goals, conflict, and stakes. This applies whether you write short stories, screenplays, novellas or novels.

HOW TO BEGIN:    

When you consider buying a new book, you generally open it and read a few pages before you decide to take it or leave it – you can even do that online with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. If the book’s middle sags, or the ending isn’t satisfying, you won’t know that until after you’ve purchased it. However, if the beginning doesn’t grab you, it’s not going home with you. That’s how readers will react to your book. This is why the most important part of a story is the beginning.

A beginning has to serve many purposes. It must introduce us to the ‘who’ of the story, also some of the what, when, and why. The tone and genre should be apparent. It should also give us enough to pique our interest; too much bogs down the story and too little leaves us scratching our heads.

As authors, we really begin by sitting down and writing. Thinking, mulling, researching – all important, but they won’t get the words on the page. Once you’ve committed to writing, you need a way to begin. The possibilities might seem endless, but there are basically three ways to launch a story.

I           Mid-action

This is when you begin at the last possible minute to give the reader a sense that the story has already started and they’re joining it already in progress. This may seem counterintuitive, like walking into a movie after it’s begun, but it tends to get the reader curious about what’s going on, so they keep reading to find out.

A good example of this would be a murder mystery that opens with the detective arriving pre-dawn at the crime scene; a beat cop hands her a take-out coffee and reads his notes: “The vic is….”, which gives readers information simultaneously with the detective. We don’t need to be in her bedroom when she’s awakened by the precinct’s call, or watch her get dressed, fix breakfast and head out to her car. That would be like arriving at the movie theater before the commercials. With mid-action, you get the reader engaged right away and weave in the details as you go.

II         Setting a scene that’s about to change

This is when you open with a scene of normal everyday life. It could focus on a character, like a young woman celebrating her promotion with her office mates, then walking home alone. Or a place, like a military base in the Middle East, where soldiers are relaxing. Often the genre hints that the placid opening will be disrupted with a bang – maybe literally. If the book’s a mystery or a thriller, you know something is going to happen – that young woman will be murdered; the soldiers playing cards or tossing a football around will suddenly come under attack. If the genre doesn’t imply something will happen, hint at it in your opening paragraph or page.

The key to this method is to hold off the revelation long enough to generate tension. Change it too soon and it will be like shouting BOO; startling but not satisfying. Wait too long and the reader will lose patience as well as interest. It also must depend on the length of the manuscript. You can take more time with a novel than with a short story.

III        A statement or explanation

Common in many great classics, this type of beginning employs a form of narration:

            A nostalgic “I remember…” musing

            A “Let me introduce myself” statement

            A narrator’s observation

            An implied ‘bookend’

            An omniscient point of view.

Mysteries that open with the murderer observing his deed, such as Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train, is one example, since the murderer is not the protagonist. Using an implied bookend, Lawrence Hill begins his engrossing novel,  Someone Knows My Name, with his elderly heroine ready to tell a packed audience her life story. The rest of the novel is told in flashback up to the climax, which brings us back to her about to go on stage.

Using this method addresses the reader in a direct way, which builds a bond. However, it introduces the plot slowly, in a cerebral rather than a dynamic manner, so it must intrigue us enough to keep reading. You can accomplish this with an opening sentence in a short story, but longer form fiction allows for more time.

Confused yet? Think of beginning a story like getting into a pool. Some just jump right in – method one. Others will dangle their feet in the water awhile, then slip in – method two. Others (me) will dip a toe in, complain about how cold it is, then slowly inch deeper into the pool until the water’s shoulder-high before gliding under – method three.

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Are you are having trouble starting your story? Consider writing three different versions using each of these methods, then see which best accomplishes the goal of an opening. Which will lead you in the direction you want to go? Even though you’ll reject two of the openings, you may keep a nugget from them to use elsewhere. Or, if you decide to use a bookend opening, you can convert one of your other versions into chapter two.

Have you begun your story but aren’t satisfied with it? Does it feel bloated with backstory? Does it convey enough to grab the reader’s interest? Which type of beginning did you use? Does it satisfy the goals of that method? If so, perhaps trying another method would be more effective, or it might suggest a fix for your original beginning.

Your opening should not only prod your readers to keep going, but you as well. Again, even outlining an opening using another method of beginning may prompt some questions or ideas that will move you forward. If you’re writing a sequel, try rereading your previous book, or go back to the beginning and reread them all. It may give you momentum, or you may find some detail that triggers an idea to follow up on.

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Have you gotten stuck after writing the opening and can’t seem to progress? Does your plot feel bogged down and going nowhere? In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to keep the middle from sagging or lagging.

*Spacemanguy` was an actual gubernatorial candidate in Washington state’s primary election. He lost.

Miko Johnston is the author of three novels in The Petal In The Wind series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com 

How Will YOU Tell The Story? Part II

 by Miko Johnston

In my last post I asked, How will we write about this? There has to be a moment when the reality of the new normal hits you in a unique way.

This is my moment:

May 20, before the tragedies we’ve witnessed in the past weeks occurred, when we focused on the pandemic and its effects on our health, our economy and our lives 24/7:

Mikos Garden1aIMG_1530After ordering restaurant take-out, my husband drove there to pick up dinner. It would take him almost an hour, leaving me time to explore a newly bloomed section of our garden, planted with rhododendrons. If you’re not familiar with the plant, they’re like azaleas on steroids, with flower clusters, some as big as your face, nestled against dark green leaves. Some grow as tall as trees; others have been pruned knee- or chest-high, their blossoms a riot of pinks, fuchsias, purples and reds.

Mikos Garden2In the shelter of the garden, hidden beneath a canopy of lavender and laurel trees, I sauntered the path that wends through the rhododendrons. As I neared the end of the path, where it rejoins the lawn, I spotted something crescent-shaped sparkling on a branch. A closer look revealed a young bird, judging by its downy feathers of gray, which blended in with the bark. She (as I later discovered) had a curved beak, bright yellow, which stood out like a slice of sunlight in the darkness of the overgrowth.

I think the bird spotted me but didn’t fly away; she seemed to accept my presence without fear. I froze and observed in silence as she returned her attention to her surroundings.

She stared at the bees hopping into flower melheads, gathering their pollen, and buzzing into the next blossom. At the sound and movement of the leaves whenever a breeze rustled them. At sunbeams that danced across branches overhead. At a pair of energetic bunnies as they frolicked on the lawn, oblivious to our presence. Many minutes passed.

Mikos Garden3IMG_1555I so wanted to hear her sing, but she didn’t. Silently she sat there, occasionally darting her head, watching everything around her as I watched her, delighting in her curiosity, her seeming amazement with the world she’d recently entered. She hadn’t mastered flying yet. Her wings fluttered to help her balance on the branches as she hopped along, taking in the sights and sounds all around her. I’d been feeling blue awhile, in a rut. All that changed with my encounter with this fledgling. I found myself transfixed by her utter joy, and that joy flowed through me for the first time in months.

Soon her mama showed up for feeding time. Mama didn’t take kindly to my presence, so I backed away and fetched my binoculars to watch her offspring from a non-threatening distance. I continued to observe her until hubby returned with dinner – fortunately, fish that night. My spirits revived, I left her and went inside to eat. Later I searched through my bird book for a picture to identify her. She resembled a female European starling, except the juveniles don’t have golden beaks.

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Two days later, as I walked toward my rhodie garden, I noticed a rock centered on a bare spot in the lawn. Nothing unusual about that, but a tiny light stripe along the top made me look closer. I found the little bird’s body lying there, her once vibrant beak now a dull tan, and I broke down.

My husband took her away and buried her, noting she had a peck wound on her chest, likely from a crow. I cried uncontrollably, then berated myself for crying over a dead bird when the tears didn’t come for much bigger tragedies.  How could I be so shallow?

Was I, though?

That little bird reminded me of how quickly melancholy can turn to joy, and joy to sorrow. How the magnitude of what’s been happening to so many, for so long, can be hard to process. By wrangling it down to its essence, finding a small representative to a larger picture – a symbol – we can better grasp how it affects us, better articulate what it means to us. And isn’t that what writers do?

So now I can answer the question I posed in my last post.

What about you? Have you begun your story yet?

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

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This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping It Real: Developing Characters, Part II

by Miko Johnston

Frequent readers of this blog may recall me referring over time to the fourth novel in my A Petal In The Wind series, which I’ve been writing for more than a year. I got stuck. My plot points kept stalling out, but I had a breakthrough after my last post. Whew! Until then I worked on revising earlier chapters. In one I found something I not only rarely do, but scold other writers for doing – I repeated myself in consecutive scenes. The actual scene played out first, and on the next page my protagonist Lala told another character what happened.

Then it occurred to me – maybe I didn’t repeat myself; maybe instead, I wrote the scene in two different perspectives. I didn’t need both, but I could compare them and keep the better of the two. Out went the full scene; the gist from her dialog worked better. Lala had to have her say about the incident, and that clarified why I got stuck finishing the novel. Lala found my direction for her ‘wanting’. I realized I kept forcing the plot in a way that wasn’t true to the character, so I ‘asked’ Lala to explain, in a few sentences, what she sought for herself. That solved the mystery. I feel confident she – and my readers – will agree this new direction sounds like the Lala we’ve watched grow up.

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Our characters must be real to us, for if we can’t envision them, body and soul, no one else will. It’s why I always write: characters ‘who’, rather than ‘that’, and say they’re created, not invented. KEEPING IT REAL: PART I focused on writing series, where you have more time and pages for character development. When creating and developing characters for a short story or stand-alone novel, how do we keep them ‘real’?

  1. Give them a background

Begin with a basic police description of gender, age, and physical size: Asian male, mid- thirties, five foot ten, 170 pounds. Ask them what you’d ask any person you’ve just met – what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do? Delve further and observe. How are they groomed and dressed? What do they sound like? Are they eloquent, plain-spoken or inarticulate? Adventurous or timid, gregarious or shy? Many writers, including our own GB Pool, recommend writing biographies for your primary and secondary characters. It’s helpful in writing a short story but vital in a novel.

  1. Find inspiration in real life

Often we base characters on actual people we know. We observe strangers in public places, listen in to their conversations. We play-act, or fantasize about what a celebrity might be like.  That may make them real to us, but it doesn’t always translate onto paper. If you write fiction, you don’t have to recreate an exact duplicate. Instead, borrow traits from the person, like appearance, personality, or history. Use those elements as a foundation to write a unique character who reminds you of what you love, or hate, about their real counterpart.  I based one character on a dear departed friend who suffered more than she deserved, and gave her a better life. I’ve also created some who resemble people I know and have one trait in common – their taste in clothes, or their bluntness. The rest I fictionalize, but with qualities I’ve found in real people.

  1. Get to know them

We must become familiar enough with a character to understand what they will say and do. Talking to your characters, questioning or interrogating them will flesh out little details. Are they outgoing or shy, active or couch potatoes? Do they like to travel, or are they homebodies? Do they eat to live or live to eat? If they could change any aspect of their life, what would it be? What flaws does your hero possess, and in contrast, what are your villain’s fine points? The more you know the better you’ll know them. To grow interrelationships, try free-form dialog, where you write a conversation between two of your characters. Sit down and begin to write without pausing, without dialog tags or punctuation. Just write, and after a few minutes your logical left brain will switch over to your more creative right brain. Try this for at least ten minutes and see what your characters have to say about each other, and by insinuation, themselves.

  1. Go beyond words and actions to thoughts and motivations

To really understand someone, we need to know more than what they say or do, but why they say or do it. Your biography will help with this, but like the exception proves the rule, contradictions in characters prove their ‘realness’. Look for contradictory traits, for everyone has a touch of hypocrisy within them. Even if your characters don’t know why they say or do something, as often happens in real life, you – their creator – must know and present it in a way the reader can deduce it without being told.

  1. Set them apart

To create characters who are not cardboard cutouts, begin by avoiding clichés and stereotypes. Not everyone from Mexico is named José (or Maria) Gomez, and you can’t always tell by appearance or mannerisms if someone is gay. Real folks are a mixture of commonality and individuality. What we share in common makes us recognizable, but our uniqueness sets us apart. Think of anyone you know and list five traits that they share with many people. Then list two or three that are different. My five shared traits would include compassionate, sensible, impatient, analytical, and curious. What sets me apart? Despite being a mature adult, put me in an environment with animals and I turn into a giddy three-year-old, as I recently demonstrated in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

  1. Let them be

Once you’ve created your characters, allow them their voice. Let them tell you what they want and don’t want, and listen to them. It could save you hours, weeks, even months of writers block. You don’t always have to obey, but trust and respect them enough to hear them out. Also allow them some privacy. Instead of writing in every detail, give enough to flesh out the character and let readers have the pleasure of filling in the rest.

All this may seem like a lot to compact into a story or book, but the sum of big picture and little details about characters humanizes them. It also makes them vivid in our minds, which enriches the story, for even above plots, great stories revolve around the people who occupy them.

To find more writing on the subject throughout this blog – just put CHARACTERS in the search line. For an in-depth look at how to create villains, see my earlier post:  https://thewritersinresidence.com/2015/07/15/building-a-better-villian-by-miko-johnston/ If you have any advice you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you.

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

 

This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

In Defense of Clichés (and Other ‘Adjusted’ Words)

 by Miko Johnston

william-james-booksellerI frequent a bookshop in a neighboring town that sells books for and about writers, along with writing-related merchandise (if you’ve been to Port Townsend Washington you know which store I mean). They carry postcards and T-shirts with writing slogans like “Avoid Clichés like the Plague”. Cute. Unfortunately, it denigrates clichés. The meaning of the word has been ‘adjusted’, and unfairly so, IMHO.

Hear me out. I’m not endorsing the constant use of ‘isms’ we now label as cliché. But the word has become synonymous with trite, and that’s unfair. While some clichés may be trite, most are merely unoriginal, though with good reason – they’re shorthand for knowledge that’s been established throughout the ages and shown to be generally true.

clicheWhen selectively used, a good cliché expresses wisdom through metaphor. A stitch in time figuratively saves nine. Actions often do speak louder than words. Sometimes it is a dark and stormy night, but since that opening line shows up more in humorous writing nowadays, we expect it to be funny, not dark. Like cliché, the expression’s meaning has been ‘adjusted’.

Not a unique situation in phrases or in words. So many words have been adjusted – either with new meanings added on, or by having their definition abridged to one exclusive meaning. In one of my older posts (see July 17, 2019) I mentioned how Clarity in writing must include weighing a word’s intended meaning against what it’s perceived to mean.

Also consider how even when the word’s meaning should be clear, many don’t understand what the word means. Take secret, for example. It’s supposed to mean confidential, not to be disclosed, but too many people seem to be unaware of that, otherwise they wouldn’t try to get you to reveal a secret. Isn’t the very meaning of that word to withhold information based on a vow?

Or take the word average. It’s a mathematical term, meant to express the value of a group of data by adding it up and dividing it by the total of their number, yet it’s taken on social connotations. We hear the expression, the average person, or man, or woman, and wonder what that could be. We equate average with falling straight down the middle of a ranking system, not being good or bad, not taking sides. Somehow average has become something to avoid, either as a person or as an opinion. And don’t get me started on how compromise has become synonymous with cowardice.

How about proud? According to my dictionary the noun proud means: feeling deep pleasure or satisfaction as a result of one’s own achievements, qualities, or possessions, or those of someone with whom one is closely associated. Have you heard anyone say they were proud of themselves, even without accomplishing an achievement (which I believe includes making the attempt, working hard and doing your best)? Or proud of a celebrity whom they’ve never met?

As a writer, knowing words – their meaning, and using them in the proper context to express thoughts – has become more challenging as the meaning of words have become ‘adjusted’. Have you noticed this trend? How have you ‘adjusted’ to it?

 

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin

September Memory

by Miko Johnston

When you read this my husband and I will in France for an annual international conference that we’ve attended most years since 1993. All have been wonderful and enriching experiences, but one will always stick out in my memory until my dying day.

We arrived in Grenoble on a warm Saturday and after checking into our hotel, wandered to the main street for dinner. We’d been attending these conferences for enough years to have met and befriended many of the attendees, so when we passed a few of them sitting outside a restaurant they invited us to join them. The organization chairman ordered mussels and white wine for the table.

zan-ilic-WrueFKpTlQs-unsplashSoon waitstaff brought out steaming five-gallon pots filled with briny shellfish, loaves of French bread and bottles of chilled wine – a white Beaujolais, which I’d never heard of before. I took one sip and delighted in its light freshness, its unpretentiousness, like young girls in summer dresses.

More attendees showed up and joined our group, and soon extra tables were added as our numbers grew. We ate and drank, laughed and caught up with each other’s lives as more orange-enameled cast iron pots of mussels emerged from the kitchen, more bread, and more of that innocent young wine.

This was September 8, 2001.

Three days later, as I returned from a morning of hiking up La Bastille hill and riding down the spherical cable cars known as “Les Bulles” (bubbles), I returned to my hotel room shortly after three and turned on the television to CNN. I saw coverage of a plane that had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. My first instinct was to blurt, “What the ___?” but before I could get the words out I watched as a second plane hit the other tower.

world-trade-center-67695_960_720Not wanting to be alone, I found my husband and we gathered with other Americans in the lobby, where we watched the horror continue to unfold on a big screen. We gathered in small groups to commiserate. One friend had a brother who worked in the first tower (miraculously, he wasn’t there that day). Another recognized a name from the passenger list of one of the planes that hit the tower – his former boss. All of us were too shocked to respond until he said, “If anyone deserved to go like that, it was that SOB.”

Then the first tower collapsed.

That evening the conference attendees and their guests had been invited to the Hotel de Ville  – the administrative building of the city – for the annual reception hosted by the mayor. It usually involves a brief greeting and welcome, followed by drinks and refreshment. Instead, we gathered with the mayor and city officials in a moment of silence followed by the usual greetings to the attendees, albeit in a more subdued manner.

Then we left, passing the restaurant we’d dined in Saturday night. Someone inquired if they could accommodate our group for dinner. They could, but for our numbers, not outside. They took us to a separate room upstairs.

Once again we gathered, not outside but in a converted attic to eat and talk. You can imagine the conversation. The pots of mussels soon appeared, along with the bread, but not that delicate wine. Every bottle of white Beaujolais was gone, along with our innocence.

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

 

This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin