What’s the Big Idea?

There’s a difference between mere talk and telling stories.

Bump into a friend and you’ll hear about the kids, the job, the vacation. . . And while you’re happy for the news, it doesn’t add up to anything momentous or lasting.

A story is much more than these bits and pieces. At its simplest, it’s interesting characters, engaged in a dramatic situation, moving through a chronology, to a resolution. At its core is a big idea. A story to has to make a point. It has to be about something.

Here are some examples of big ideas:

  • A character comes of age, and/or embraces a new reality.
  • Or has his values tested, and emerges differently for it.
  • Or is rescued, or recues someone else.
  • Or is punished for his misdeeds in a comeuppance tale.
  • Or learns a moral lesson, which changes him.
  • Or achieves his heart’s desire.
  • Or redeems himself, despite the odds  . . .

As you go about your day, as the bustle of the season increases, why not sort through the chit-chat and listen for the stories?  Hear any good ones? Consider the big idea at the heart of a story that moved you. Extract this essence; find this core.

And then reflect on the storyteller’s treatment of it. All love stories, for example, or war stories, or come-of-age stories and so on, are not the same. Though the action might follow a similar trajectory of events (boy meets girl, say, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again), the specifics of character, conflict, place, tone, time and other engaging detail are determined on a story by story basis, with the writer in charge.

Have a story you’d like to tell? Begin with the big idea that appeals to you. Think about how you will make it your own.  (Is yours a love story between two seals at the Central Park Zoo? Is it a war story that concerns, say, a battle against disease or pollution?) And with these preliminaries fixed, sketch out the trajectory you’ll follow from introduction to conflict to resolution, and then go on and clothe your tale.

Photo Credit: Cassidy Curtis, otherthings

Silence the Censor

Do you, at times, have your doubts? Do you look over your material and hear that nasty little interior voice saying no way, absolutely not, NO?

If you’re going to get any work done, you have to kick the nay-sayer to the curb. That’s just a fact of a writing life.

For an hour, a day, an entire writing week, give yourself a break, and make it an anything goes zone.

And when, some hard work later, you’ve penned as much as you can, take the day off. Go out, refresh, and embrace your world. Later, you can rework it.

Later, you can cut out the dead. The redundant. The confusing.

But now?  No limits. No expectations. No old biddy standing over your shoulder, ruler at the ready to rap your knuckles. Welcome to the yes zone. Let it fly. And have a good time.

Photo credit: Mel Lindstrom

Getting Lucky

How’s your writing going? Have you achieved any of your goals? Published what you wanted? Able to define yourself as an author, as a writer?  Not much luck these days? Then let’s get you some. Here are three things that will help.

First, if you’re inclined to believe you’re lucky, you are.

Consider this, from the field of medicine. You have heard of a placebo, the sugar pill substituted for the real medicine that still gets results for the simple reason that the patient expected to improve? Well, there is also the documented notion of nocebo: if you believe it won’t help you,  you’ll also be right. It’s in your control: believe in your luck, and it will improve.

Next, gratitude has a lot to do with finding your luck.

Have you considered all that’s gone right? All that is still going strong? Do you keep a gratitude list—say, ten things a day that make you grateful? Are you looking right at the answer to your prayers and not seeing it because you don’t value it?

I heard a radio story not long ago where a young musician from a remote part of China was talking about his love of music. He played a thin, vibrating, instrument that had a strange, even haunting sound I couldn’t place.  Up and down the scale he went, his music by turns piercing, reverent, resonating.  It turned out that he played a simple leaf plucked from a random bush. He just put it between his lips and blew. Music is everywhere, he said, in the cow’s moan, in the wind. It’s a humbling thought. Be grateful for the leaf in hand, and make it sing.

Finally, your luck will increase if you can use it to benefit someone else, at least some of the time. If there’s a scientific reason for this, I haven’t found it, but the empirical evidence persists:  if you share the wealth, the wealth comes back to you. Though there is no adequate explanation for this, why not work the facts in hand while you rummage around the bushes?

How about you?

Are you lucky these days? Any tips for increasing good fortune? Comment here, and spread the sunshine.

Photo credit: bush – Potyr, Pete the Poet; bird in the bush – Sarah Williams, sxc

Is it Done Yet?

How do you know when a work is done? Every writer grapples with this question, and newer writers in particular.

If writing were a soup, a new cook or a harried seasoned pro might be tempted to simply chop things quickly, throw in all the ingredients, stir, simmer, adjust the seasonings, and call it done—maybe even within the hour.

But it’s not done. Not by half. Oh sure, it might edible, but we want more than that. We want sublime. We want memorable.

Let’s look at that soup.

The ingredients could be fresher. Or the dice is uneven. Perhaps you poured the stock straight from the can when it would be so much better if it were homemade. The seasonings should be fresh-ground. And find another cook pot, one that might produce a more even heat. You can’t shortcut your way to cooking—or writing—if you expect to like what you produce.

And even after you have mastered these elements, your soup has to rest so the flavors can marry, before we come back for that final taste prior to serving.

In writing terms, after a rest, you might decide that a character has to go, or a scene is wrong, or dialogue rings hollow when spoken aloud. If what you’ve written doesn’t grab you by the first sentence, the first paragraph, it’s not done.

Maybe you have to throw it out and start over. Or maybe it’s just a question of one tiny tweak.

How do you know when you’re done? Flip to any page, any paragraph and take a look. When there’s nothing else left that you can think to do to improve it, it’s done.

How about you?

What’s your test for when a work is done? Do you measure by the clock? By the approaching deadline? Leave a comment. Let’s hear what works for you.

Photo credit: www.Wickedlocal.com, which contains a recipe for potato leek soup by Christopher Kimball, who knows his soups.