My thoughts are jumping all over the place today. I’ve been thinking a bit about the Oscars, about film-making, about the NPR series on movie-set jobs, and about the recent death of Maria von Trapp, one of the daughters of the famous family of singers whose story was told in The Sound of Music.
These thoughts led me on to new places…like this admittedly bad joke — which happens to be one of my favorites:
Uh, yeah, for the humor-challenged, that’s “Gee, I’m a tree.”
Are you seeing any patterns here? No? Good. You’re not supposed to see any patterns. There are none.
From geometry, my mind skipped ahead to Arthur Zulu, an ambitious fellow from Nigeria whose creative mind allowed him to bypass the usual letter-scam routine and promise millions to be made from writing best-sellers. He’ll tell you precisely how to do it in an amusing little book, How to Write a Bestseller.
Yes, I read it. Hey, it was free! And I do enjoy a good laugh, otherwise why would I appreciate silly riddles about acorns?
What? You’ve never heard of best-selling author, Arthur Zulu? Don’t feel bad. Nobody else has either, so apparently he’s failed to follow his own advice.
Question: Is it wrong for me to poke a bit of fun at this enterprising fellow? Probably so. But, he’s the one who stuck his neck out and claimed to have the answers.
The process, Zulu tells us, is simple, indeed. A best-seller needs a good title, so choose one wisely. Next, consider the beginning of the story. Something to “hook” the reader would be good. Write that down. Now, think of the ending. Great! You’re making excellent progress. All you must do now is fill in the rest of the story. It’s that easy.
In fairness to Arthur Zulu, he does include some information about the publishing industry, biographies of many best-selling authors, and a staggering array of facts and figures that made my eyes glaze over. He’s thrown in some motivational words, as well. You can do it, he says, if you really believe in yourself.
By now, you can probably see how my mind tends to skip around, bouncing from one thought to another, ping-ponging between seemingly unrelated ideas, and wandering far off-course at any point from A to B.
That’s what this is really all about, you see. Point A. Point B. The distance between them, and most of all, how to get from one to the other.
Back to, yes, geometry.
Oh, by the way, I just read a fascinating article in Discover magazine about art and mathematics, and maybe you’d like to check it out.
All right. Back to writing. Point A. Point B.
Storytelling truly is a simple process of getting from one point to another. Most writers, I think, believe the best way to get from beginning to end is a straight-forward, linear course with each scene written in a logical sequence according to its chronology within the story.
In other words, you can’t write a love scene between Bob and Mary until they’ve met. You can’t write about the hero locating the hidden treasure before he’s given the map. You most assuredly can’t write that fateful scene where your heroine renounces love and swears to run away to the convent before you’ve done that crucial scene where she sees the man she loves in the arms of that awful other woman…can you?
Sure, you can. I do it all the time. Especially at the start of a new project, when I have thousands of uncharted words to explore. All possibilities are open, and my imagination is free to wander.
Much like a film director who shoots scenes at one location — regardless of where they fit in the story — then moves to another, I jump around in my scene-writing.
Of course, I have a general outline to guide me. I know who my characters are and the problems they’ll face. I have an understanding of how they will grow and change at each stage of the story.
Armed with a list of potential scenes, I’ll sit down and start writing — in no particular order. I’ll grab a scene from the middle of the story, take a deep breath, and plunge in. No, I don’t know exactly what’s gone before. I have no idea what will go into the scene directly before it, but at the first-draft stage, I don’t need to know.
Or, more to the point, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to place any restrictions upon my thoughts. I don’t want my imagination to be confined to what seems logical. Instead, I want freedom. I want to throw in whatever ideas come into my head. I want to pull out all the stops and wring out every last drop of drama without some nagging voice inside my head saying, “Wait, that’s not going to work. That doesn’t fit. That doesn’t make sense.”
When I’m free to write as I please, my characters are free, as well. They can unleash whatever emotions are churning inside of them. They can speak their minds. They can do whatever they must.
Later, of course, comes the task of assembling it all, putting it into order, and making sense of the jumbled mess. As crazy as it all sounds, it’s really not so difficult. The huge, dramatic points I’ve created serve as guideposts, showing me the proper direction the story should take. I arrange and re-arrange, I shuffle, I tweak. It comes together with a depth of emotion that I don’t believe would have ever been possible had I simply written the story is a logical, one-scene-after-another method.
In truth, yes, I sometimes find myself with great scenes that don’t fit anywhere in the story. When writing Summertime, set during the early days of World War I, I had a heart-wrenching scene where the hero, Ed Ferguson, learns of his brother’s death. Good scene. But it didn’t work on a number of levels. I threw it out. It happens.
The emotions, however, remained with me as I wrote these lines in the “final draft” process:
He kept staring after Johnny, kept waiting for him to stop, but his brother walked on, splashing through the rainy morning, his bulky figure getting smaller as each step put more distance between him and Ed. Finally, he stepped beyond the horizon into the clouded gray day.
Ed swallowed, hard. No man could ever know the future with any certainty, but something in his gut told him he’d never see his brother again.
People are often aghast when I describe my “hit and miss, here and there” writing style. I’ll admit, I once thought all stories had to be written one scene after another in logical, linear fashion. How could it be otherwise?
But, thank goodness I trusted the workings of my muse and allowed my imagination to wander. Getting from Point A to Point B isn’t always about following a single, straight line. Sometimes the creative power we seek lies in the little detours along the way.
Get off the well-walked road from time to time. Shake up your writing routines. Give yourself the freedom to write your story in any order you want. After all, maybe that logical, straight-forward story you’re trying to tell isn’t meant to be quite so logical and straight-forward. Maybe when you shuffle it all around inside your head, you’ll see new ideas emerging that will make your story fresh and new.
Have fun…and happy writing!