“Please, Fence Me In!”

Blog—picket fenceHave you read this yet? Jeff Goins has a way with words, and sometimes he grabs my attention with a topic that arrives right on time. I’ve been mulling a couple of the points from his post. I don’t disagree with the post. The truth is, I’m not thinking about marketing when I’m kicking around potential titles. I know some would say I should be more concerned about that, but I’m really thinking about a lovely white picket fence.

Sure. It’s all about marketing, and I get that. But it’s about content.

For me, the title is the neat, welcoming picket fence that defines my boundaries. When I’m drafting the gate is open to almost any and all words, but eventually some of those words are shown the sidewalk when I know which ideas, scenes, and sentences play nicely in the yard with the others.

But that fence. I guess I need a plat survey to know where the posts will go before I can seriously evaluate what stays or goes. It’s the granddaddy of all college term papers in my mind sometimes. Writing needs a raison d’être. I’m on the hunt for that.

The nugget I needed in Goins’ post was this: choose an argument.

We called this a thesis for college papers, but it never goes away in our writing. This argument is the work’s reason for being, the lifeblood of the work itself. To be honest, a storyline is a beautiful thing (especially in memoir), but I need to consider the why behind the story. Why tell it? Why should my reader invest time and emotional energy in the story? The tension in the argument makes all the difference, and it’s still there when the content is “just a chronological story.”

There’s a big idea out there somewhere. It may be entertainment, but I think there’s something deeper. Stories have purpose. They draw us in. They teach us. They engage us. They sit with us in a kind of conversation (usually while I sip mug after mug of java). And stories also have a life of their own, flowing at their pace and following their chosen path. The reader rides the current, and the current is the story. But that’s no excuse for words traipsing all over the page without restraint in my mind.

I have a favorite title in mind, and I haven’t been able to shake it. In a moment of brilliance—at least I hope it was!—I saw a connection between the main character’s name, her understanding of her identity, and a couple of different meanings of that name. We’ll see if White Wave Crashing remains when all is said and done. I definitely need to take a closer look at my work’s purpose, audience, and argument because these are posts or pickets in the fence that defines my book.

Goins makes a fantastic point about marketing. An author has one chance to grab the reader’s eyeballs in order to get their fingers leafing through the pages. He’s right about the marketing, and if I could see just a little further down the road—

What do you think?

Does the author let the work grow at its own pace? A sculptor might say the rock speaks, and he merely responds by removing whatever is not part of the piece it wants to be. Maybe authors are like that. Maybe I am a little like that, too—on a good day when I am not self-editing the self-edits or plotting every curve, rise, and fall in the WIP.

I say, “Fence me in, please!” I’ll be working on this in order to have a loose framework, but I don’t expect to write a final draft the first time through. This is a process. Even knowing what the book is not is a very good thing.

What has helped you in choosing an argument? Can you share an argument you used in a sentence or so? If you write memoir, how do you think this plays into that genre? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

~j

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Hey Writer, Create Character Sketches: Stranger Things

I’ve been thinking about writing interesting characters with depth, the kind that draw a reader into the story. There’s something in the details. There are precious details that shouldn’t be overlooked, and then there are the things that tell too much. Yeah, I’m probably guilty of “TMI” more often than not. If nothing is left to the imagination, there’s not much left for the reader to do than scan the words on the page. There’s no engagement there.

So, I made up a little exercise. I’ll nonchalantly take in the scenes around me (and the people in them). Each person I see is now a character, but there are rules—

  1. The person must be a complete stranger.
  2. Jot notes on the physical appearance (physique, posture, clothing, movement).
  3. Include notes on the person’s presence in the place (sound, language, gestures).
  4. Imagine the internal workings of the mind (choices, values, self-esteem).
  5. Quick “day in the life” sketch of the stranger.

I wonder how this kind of exercise will change my writing skill. It might be helpful, but I’ll let you know. I think the benefit is having a jotted list first and selecting from that. Rather than starting with a written piece, I can whittle down what I really need: a basic description and puzzle pieces for a story line, dialogue, and character interaction in relationship to others.

If you’ve done an exercise of this nature, how did it develop your skill in the craft?

What kinds of information would useful in an exercise like this to develop characters?

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you feel like sharing below.

Thanks for reading along!

~j

First Memory

I’ve been thinking through my story, and I thought I’d try to capture my earliest memory. I couldn’t help but share it with you.

For those who need a heads up, this story involves a young child and a pool. You know it turns out okay because I’m able to tell the story all these years later. Just wanted you to know.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this piece. Comment below or at my author page on Facebook.

~j


Brilliant cerulean surrounded her. Everywhere—to the left, right, and below—shades of the prettiest blue sparkled and danced before her eyes. Hypnotic shapes flitted here and there, and her eyes followed, fascinated. The visual hustle contrasted everything else.

Time froze as she gracefully drifted in the blue. Her plump little hands floated effortlessly until she tried to move them. What’s happening? she wondered. Everything feels so heavy.

Strands of fine, chestnut hair crept in front of her eyes, obscuring the view of the pretty dancing shapes. A shake of the head only drew the tangles of hair closer to her face, gently wrapping with the lightest feather touch.

Loud, incoherent, muffled voices bounced around with the blue shapes.

Captivating and confusing. In the middle of it all, beautiful silver-edged beads grabbed her attention and skittered upward in hasty, wiggly paths. She tried to keep her eyes on them through the spaces in the gliding, ever-spreading dark hair haze. Pretty! she thought, and she reached too-slow fingers through the heavy blue to catch the sparkles. They raced up and out of sight, up there.

The blues stopped at the edge of “up there” where blotches of color boldly wiggled and swelled and blended into fresh confusion. Partly obscured and partly diced by brown hair strands, up was a new, short-lived fascination. Gray-blue, white, greens, browns, and little shocks of color fought for space together in the wavy “up there.”
This isn’t right! Mommy, where are you? I want my mommy!

“Mo—!” she opened her mouth to let out a yell, but the pretty blue stifled her cry and tasted awful.

The seconds jump-started to a sprint.

Suddenly, out of the “up there” a warped silhouette broke through the mix of colors, shattering them into a million pieces. The hand appeared, decorated with the same shiny beads. Some of them were caught on the underside of the palm until they, too, ran upward in their squiggly paths. Scary and intrusive, this hand interrupted the confusion. She recoiled from the noise but didn’t complain when she felt the strong tug that pulled her through the heavy dancing blues toward “up there” and into the bright, sunny day she’d fallen out of.

Gasp! Cough! “Mommy-y-y-y-y!” she cried in a wavering screech.

Two large hands caught her up and plopped her down a little hard. Hair tangles covered her eyes until the big hand brushed them aside. The cement patio was warm and bit at her soft, pudgy legs and bottom. Water droplets ran down her arms and legs. Between coughs and distraught breaths, the air was good and right. Familiar faces surrounded her, but the one closest wasn’t the one she wanted. Tall, sun-bleached blonde and tanned, Mr. Leon owned the pool she would remember in vivid detail for the rest of her life. As he quickly assessed the two-and-a-half-year-old’s condition, Mommy and Daddy hovered.

Sniff. Sniff. All she wanted was her mom.

“Mommy!” She got up and hustled around the man she barely knew to the blonde woman in pigtails who waited anxiously with a towel. A soft, warm, too-thin towel wrapped around her three times over. She cuddled in Mommy’s lap in a long deck chair, sniffling hot summer air between the smelly water droplets crawling down her nose. Then she fell asleep.