For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Finding A Way In

'Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.'
Robert McKee

In my classes, students sometimes throw up their hands in despair, saying they have no way in to a story, nothing concrete to fix on, nowhere to start. Beginning something as big as a novel can be overwhelming, but only in anticipation; once it is started, then you know it is possible. Bit by bit the word count will increase and in the end you'll have a novel. There is no formula for how much you need to know before starting, no strategy that satisfies everyone. Personally, I like to know as little as possible, perhaps an image or a theme or two, perhaps a few loose signposts to guide me. I say loose, because anything too tight will restrict the growth of the characters and then the plot will feel forced and implausible. As E L Doctorow once said, 'writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' This is how I write, trusting that there really is a road beyond those headlights. However, it also means that there are times when I have to stop and do some research before moving on, perhaps because a character is evading me or I need to understand better the 'world' of the novel I am creating.

My response to students who don't know where to start or who feel they aren't yet ready, is to tell them that openings are not fixed. Most short stories and novels begin in the middle of things so that the story has a history even at the opening line. In a sense then, it doesn't matter initially where you start, because openings can be moved or changed, and often are. The important thing is just to start and to do that I tell my students to search for a single image, perhaps a person, a scene, anything that is less abstract than a broad story line. 'Look for detail,' I tell them, 'and write from there. Describe, imagine, step into the head of a character, ask questions and see what you find.'

I wanted my second novel, Flight, to open in an attic room in the inner suburbs of Sydney. Well actually, it had to open there because that was the only thing I knew about the novel. So I described the attic room, the protagonist, Fern, and the life going on outside her room. By doing this, I found out more about Fern and her room, as well as who lived next door and who her flat mates were. But a young woman who has locked herself in an attic is not a story in itself, though there is a good deal of potential back story there, just waiting to be discovered. Why was she in this attic? Why wouldn't she come out? I asked myself lots of questions, because aside from developing strong characters, curiousity is the best way of finding story. Fern is running from something, I decided. But what? Life perhaps. Or was there something more? If so, what? One thing or person? Or many?

I wrote four long chapters with Fern in her attic, while I began forming and fleshing out the world of the story and its boundaries, discovering that it would reach beyond the physical world to a metaphysical one which might or might not be a product of Fern's imagination. In the process of doing this, I found answers to some of the questions I was asking and from there the story began to form; both the back story that would motivate Fern's actions and the catalyst that would get the story moving. However, although I found some of the answers I was seeking, I didn't give them to the reader because openings are not about answers, they're about hooks, and hooks mean unanswered questions. These are what keeps readers turning pages - more on this in a future post.

This is how I write and it's the only way I know. So when students tell me they can't find a way in, I tell them to just begin. To start with what they know and from that point of safety to step into the unknown. To tell their story and to tell it truthfully. For as Maya Angelou wrote, 'There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.'

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

1 comment:

  1. This is great. I love the anthropological tint to the piece that you establish at the very beginning with McKee's quote and as a student of culture, I must say that the idea of narrative as being universal has a special resonance with me.
    To tap into that need to tell stories is a very cool method.

    Please let me know what you think of my stuff: