The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘storytelling

I did it. I couldn’t resist. I gave myself the gift of a MasterClass with the amazing Margaret Atwood! MasterClass brings online learning to you from experts in everything from cooking (e.g. Alice Waters) to tennis (e.g. Serena Williams). They have a number of writers to choose from including R.L. Stine, James Patterson, Malcom Gladwell and Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood’s a writer I absolutely adore! Truth be told, she’s the kind of writer that if I met a trickster spirit and they offered me a deal like, “You can write like Margaret Atwood, but you’d have to give up a limb.” I’d seriously consider it. Well, yes, I know…never trust a trickster spirit! I imagine though you, too, have writers whose work you adore and strive to emulate.

I thought how can I pass up an opportunity to study with her? I decided I couldn’t. I plunked down about $200 for an “all access pass” (which allows you to have year-long access to the videos and lifetime access to all the materials + access to other classes). She has 20+ pre-recorded videos that explore a variety of topics including writing through roadblocks, structuring a novel, revealing the world using sensory imagery, revision, etc.  Also included is a workbook crammed with exercises, additional thoughts, reading lists, etc. The first few videos I watched I could barely concentrate because I was TREMBLING while viewing Margaret Atwood right there in front of me talking about our shared passion—writing! I broke out in glee blisters (OK, so there’s probably no such a thing as a glee blister, but you do understand my level of enthusiasm).

The videos are infused with her wit, humor and wisdom. I think the MasterClass presents a unique opportunity to study with world class teachers. [BTW, I’m not getting paid to say this!]

I learned tons—so much so I am still digesting it all. These three tips below have stayed with me and they might be useful to you, too.

1) “Story is what happens. Structure is how you tell it.” Master simple chronological storytelling before tackling complex narrative variations. In one of the lessons, Margaret Atwood riffs on the different ways one could structure the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

The story would be the same but you could tell it a variety of ways using a different structure:

–beginning to end; starting in the middle (e.g. “It was dark inside the wolf. The grandmother who had been gobbled whole couldn’t say a word, because it was quite stifling and full of old chicken parts and plastic bags that the wolf had eaten by mistake”); using time jumps (“Little was Little Red Riding Hood to know that in two weeks’ time she would be looking back at one of the most definitive events of her life.”); start with a flashback; tell it from a different perspective, etc.

I can see that while writing my first novel, my ambition exceeded my skill level. I didn’t know how to tell a multiple viewpoint story, some of which took place in the past and also involved a number of time jumps. I just wasn’t a skilled enough writer back then to pull that off. I finally did find a path forward by excerpting material in what became my novella, Reenu-You. It is still complex for a novella in that it has two first person narrators and uses journalistic devices (i.e. emails, commercials, etc.) to tell a layered story.

Can you apply Atwood’s insight to a piece that you are working on that feels too complex and isn’t working? Can you find a way to simplify the narrative structure so you can tell the story that you want?

2) Writers have to think about narrative order. Margaret Atwood says that writers have to figure out who knows what and when in a story. And, you have to consider what effect your decisions, about the order of what is revealed, will have on the reader.

“One question you can ask yourself, if you’re writing: Does the reader know more than the character, or does the character know more than the reader? Or do they both know the same amount? Because it’s going to be one of those three.”

-When the reader knows more than the character that can create suspense.
-When the character knows more than the reader that can create narrative irony.

Atwood said it took her three attempts to figure out who would tell the story in The Blind Assassin!

I’m the process of revising a mystery, so this insight has been highly relevant to figuring out when to reveal what detail to the reader.

What about you? Is there a story where you can play with the narrative order to create more tension and suspense in the story?

3)“Print out your work, read it aloud and while reading, use a ruler. Read slowly.”

This is how Margaret Atwood revises her work.

Now, I absolutely am a proponent of reading one’s work aloud, but I had never tried doing it slowly and with a ruler. Sounds simple, right? I had a story that I was prepping to send to a magazine and I decided to try her method —I used a bookmark as I didn’t have a ruler. Wow, was this a revelatory experience! I noticed everything, the rhythm of words, word choice, when sentences were too long or short. I loved this process and will use it for final revisions moving forward; it gave me such a bigger and richer perspective on editing.

Do you have a piece that you’re about to submit and think it’s ready to go? Try Margaret’s technique and see what you discover.

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Affirmations-366Days#336: Today I remind myself that all I need to do is face the page for a few minutes and my inner storyteller will come out and play.

For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

Affirmations-366Days#142: Humans are wired to love stories. I study story structures and discover what kinds of stories move others. I am a powerful storyteller.

For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

Affirmations-366Days#72: I am careful not to talk all the energy out of a writing idea. I wait until the right time to talk about my creative work with others.

For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

For many years, I’d talk to anyone about what I was intending to write or generally working on. Sometimes talking about a great idea for a writing project made it more real to me. Or, sometimes, talking as if I was already finished with a project made me feel more like a “real” writer. The funny thing was that sharing a lot about my writing seemed to take energy away from actually doing the writing. Indiscriminately talking about what one is going to write can be a form of procrastination. Our minds are pretty crafty and can trick us into believing that all that talking is like taking the action of putting words down on paper. It isn’t. Talking about writing (no matter how enthusiastic one is or one’s audience is), however, is not writing. I am now pretty secretive about my writing, usually only talking about it to others (besides those in my writing group), when a project is near completion.

I like Nancy Peacock’s take on this topic. Her book of essays about being a writer and a housecleaner, A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning and Life, is a great addition to your writing library:

Excerpt from Chapter 7: The Writing Spider

I cringe whenever a writer asks if I’d like to hear about the book he is working on, or in some cases not working on but merely thinking about. “Write it down,” I tell him.

“Oh, I will. But don’t you want to hear about it now?”

No, I don’t.

Don’t break that magical spell of writing a story and waiting for it to evolve, day after day after day after day. Don’t dither away the energy with cocktail chatter. Don’t give your baby any form other than the written word. (my emphasis)

Stories want to be form, but they aren’t attached to the form that they take. A story is just as content to be told orally as it is to be written. If I go around telling it to everyone, it’s happy and gone. The tension is over. Talking about a work in progress to anyone but the most carefully chosen people is a death knell.

 

I spent a much needed week at the beach on Emerald Isle, N.C. and just got back yesterday! The ocean called to me and at times I felt so moved by its beauty, I wanted to read a poem to it. Maybe next time. I learned new card games (Liverpool rummy), hung out with friends, watched for meteorite showers, and read uplifting books and blogs.  I’ve collected a few posts here that I hope you enjoy. Now, I’m off to finish shaking sand out of everything I brought back with me.

If you haven’t seen this yet– The 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar– it is definitely worth checking out on the 109 site.

I always love when new words get added to the dictionary. Check out new words that just made it in to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary on ‘Bibliophilic Blather’,  a blog I really like.

Rachel Aaron tells of her success in stumbling onto a way of increasing her daily word count—taking it from 2,000 to 10,000 words a day! I’ve been experimenting with her advice and the results are good.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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