Living Our Stories

In writing workshops, teachers and advisers (and agents/publishers) all say that regardless of genre, a book’s word count is limited. In science fiction, for example, the standard acceptable word count ranges between 90K and 120K. Given this restriction, it’s important for the writer to confine herself to those words that move the story along toward its ultimate goal. They also drill into our heads the writer’s mantra: SHOW. Don’t TELL.

This morning I found myself comparing this philosophy to Life. We have a limited number of words (minutes/hours/days) with which to tell our story. If what we’re doing at any given moment does not further the purpose of the story in some meaningful way, it’s a waste of that finite resource.

Of course, key to either of these concepts is the fact that the writer must know the purpose of her story, its relevant point. She has to know what it is she wants her book (or her life) to accomplish. Ask any writer what is the goal of her story and (unless she is a writer with years of experience, or her log line is so practiced she could say it in her sleep) you’ll see her expression change to one of deep thought because in life, even more than on the page, refining such a sweeping, sometimes spiritual idea to the limited confines of mere words can present a real challenge.

It’s interesting to note that even if the writer has not defined it, the message of her life is there in her actions when she thinks no one is looking. It shines forth in her passions, in her treatment of others and of the world around her. The meaning of her story is revealed as much in what she avoids as in what she embraces. It is that showing that demonstrates to others what her life is really about far more visibly than her words ever could.

But here’s the big difference between writing and living. It’s expected that writers will draft and edit and rewrite their stories until they get the words right. Life seldom gives us the chance to rewrite our actions this time around. Unless reincarnation is true and we’ll get other tries (during which we still won’t remember the mistakes we made in the last draft), this is our one opportunity.

Writers or not, we’ve all heard the advice that we should make our moments count for something. I admit I’ve wasted far too many in floundering, not knowing what my story is, much less how to tell it. Or in letting others manipulate how I tell my story, as if they know any better than I what that might be. Or by doing completely irrelevant things that don’t help the process in any way, like regret or self-flagellation over things I cannot change. These are like throwaway scenes that I know will be cut from my manuscript in the editing process, so why do I write them in to begin with?

Who knows? Certainly not me. Even now, working a first draft of my second novel, I know that a freshly written scene is first-draft material, and may end up in my digital trash. Sometimes, pointless bits are stepping stones that carry me from where I am to where I want to be. They help me decide which way I want the story to go. They are tentative explorations that are part of the process of clarifying and refining the story’s purpose.

Maybe they aren’t completely pointless, then. I don’t know about you, but even if I have planned my overall point into a story outline (yes, friends, I am at least in part a plotter), weaving its threads into a riveting tale takes time and practice. Just like in life, I try things, make mistakes, go back and try again. Sometimes (like that manuscript that just can’t be fixed), the only thing I can do is walk away and start anew with another story. Every experience, good or bad, hones my skills, tightens my focus, sharpens my message or purpose.

And doesn’t that say something? Because the writers who’ve been there, who know how to cut and edit and trim, who know the process for making every word pack dramatic, meaningful punch, their names linger. Maybe Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King, Jr., Graça Machel, Gandhi and their ilk are/were their kin, showing us the point of their stories through the impactful events of their lives.

After all, no matter how many short stories or novels or essays I may write while I’m on this journey, my life is the story that really counts. I hope that despite my mistakes or edits or attempts to rewrite, that tale will have meaning not just for me, but for those whose lives I touch along the way.

The Girl on the Train

By Paula Hawkins
The Penguin Group, ISBN: 9780698185395
Paperback, ©2015, 416 pages

Rachel’s teetering on the edge. Alcoholism and bitterness over her failed marriage nudges her closer every day to total loss of what little she has left. Her only bright spot is the daily commute to London where her train stops at a faulty signal. From there, she can see the back of her old marital home and, several doors down, the house of strangers she’s dubbed “Jess and Jason,” whose lives Rachel has imagined as a dreamy ideal, everything she wanted and everything she lost. But after witnessing a shocking encounter there, Rachel is yanked into the darkness of an alcoholic fugue, a lost night, and a frightening mystery that sends her spiraling into the lives of strangers whose beautiful facades are not at all what they seem.

The three main characters—Rachel, Megan and Anna—reveal themselves in layers. The further I read, the more I understood them. The more real they seemed. Each is flawed, as are we all. Yet theirs are basic human needs and emotions to which we can all relate. While I cringed every time Rachel reached for a gin and tonic or a bottle of wine, I sympathized with her pain. I cheered for her when she tried to stop, and felt disappointed when she slipped. And I strained with her to remember what happened that fateful Saturday night. Megan and Anna, too, struggle with demons and secrets that compel them to act in detestable ways, yet I felt compassion for their fear and grief and loss.

Hawkins incorporates, with brilliant results, the fallibility of memory and makes good use of the unreliable narrator in this gripping tale. No one is who they appear to be, and when one of the characters goes missing, everyone else seems guilty. As a writer who is always learning to improve my craft, I was awed by this author’s ability to thread suspense into the narrative, slowly at first, then twisting it harder as I got deeper into the mystery. This is no simple murder mystery. Each of the characters’ stories has its own revelation, some more than one, and even though I correctly guessed who committed the act by two thirds of the way through (if not sooner), there remained plenty of surprises I never saw coming.

The train is an apt metaphor for Hawkin’s thriller, since the murder at its heart careens through the predictable lives of its characters and shoves them all off the rails in a tangle of lies, suspicion and fear. Every incident in the story is connected, as are the cars on the commuter line. Rachel’s life, already unstable, hurtles out of control like a speeding train. Even her blackouts fit the simile, especially the single image of hovering beneath the railway overpass with dirt under her nails, blood on her hands and a cut on her head, and no clear memory of what any of it means.

I sat up half the night reading because I couldn’t put this book down. I’d like to be able to point out the weak spots in the story, but honestly I was so caught up in its thrill that I failed to notice any. It would be a real accomplishment for any writer, but Girl on the Train is a debut novel. If this is any indication of what is to come, I’ll be watching for future releases from Paula Hawkins. An excellent read.

Smudging My Words

Southeastern Virginia got hit with a bad snowstorm last week, one we locals are calling “Snowpocalypse 2018.” While I personally did not go outside with a ruler or anything, friends posted photos on Facebook where their yards were more than 12” deep in places. Those of you in more northern states may laugh and call us lightweights, but the truth is that our local area has no reasonable mass transit that can take the place of cars for most commuters, nor adequate equipment to mitigate bad road conditions for drivers so that business can proceed as usual. We just don’t get enough snow every year to make such purchases necessary. So when we do get the one (or maybe two) bad snows each winter that cover our roads with snow and ice for a day or two, many business just shut down.

Thus last Thursday and Friday turned into “snow leave” for my small office. Needless to say, I was as excited as a kid with a snow day, especially knowing I could use that time to work on my novel for four days straight. Then Smudge got sick on Saturday and despite the awful conditions of the roads, we ended up at the emergency vet, a twenty-minute drive that took us forty-five minutes to cover.

Don’t panic … all is well, now. But sheesh, when our boy is sick, I can’t think of anything else. Ya know?

I don’t have any two-legged children, though our grey furbaby demands his fair share of time and attention. He hates our office, with those metal clicky things (computers) that keep us so preoccupied that we don’t jump at his every meow. Sometimes it’s impossible to get anything done in the office, which is why I have a laptop. He is more amenable to my computer work if I am on the couch, where he can sleep next to me (touching my leg, if at all possible), or make pancakes on the cushion beside me. Every now and then he will wake and pat me with his paw to say, “Don’t forget me, mom,” or “I need hugs RIGHT NOW, mom.”

He’s a talker, too. If we ignore him too long, he’ll walk all through the apartment making his displeasure known to all (including the neighbors).

So when we left him at the vet yesterday, I planned to come home and use the time to get ahead of schedule. You know, type uninterrupted for as long as I could while he was otherwise occupied. But that’s not how it happened. I couldn’t stop worrying. He’s an old boy – almost 17 years – so at this point anything could go wrong, and take him from us before we’re ready. Instead of working Saturday, we spent the day on the couch distracting ourselves with mindless television, namely “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” on Netflix. Only Sunday morning, after the vet called to say he was better, did I get back to work. I did make my target word count for the day, but after we picked Smudge up that evening, we spent the rest of the evening with him. I’ll probably do the same thing tonight. He’s not back to himself just yet, and his need for comfort has to come first.

Writing is important, yes. I try to do it every day. But some things will win out every time over my characters’ voices. Family is at the top of that list, and Smudge is definitely family.

Learning to Fly

Since I posted last week, my schedule has focused mostly on writing, so much so that my fingers were flying on the keyboard and I busted my target word count almost every day. During a break, I perused old e-mail and came across a message from the middle of December from iFly, saying “Don’t forget to redeem the voucher you already purchased!” I purchased a voucher? When? I called the Virginia Beach iFly center to verify the e-mail was legit. It was. Not only that, it was good for six one-minute flights or three two-minute flights, plus all equipment rental, three free photos and two free videos.

Now if you know me, you know I love to fly. But neither Bobby nor I bought this. I checked. iFly staff could not tell me where it came from. I’d love to thank my benefactor, but for now their secret will remain intact. More importantly, I couldn’t let this gift go unappreciated. That would just be rude, so I scheduled a flight for last Saturday.

It’s been a little over a year since I last flew. Thankfully, I remembered (at least intellectually) all the right moves, though I still sat through the beginner class for a refresher. The thing is that once in the chamber, all that intellectual knowledge counts for very little if your muscle memory doesn’t kick in. I had to mentally remind myself to make small movements, to reach forward to move back, stretch out to go up, relax to go down, and so on. That two minutes in the chute goes so fast! My flight time was over before I knew it. All the way back to the car, my feet never touched the ground.

That night, as I lay chasing sleep, it occurred to me that there are parallels between flying and writing. Just in case they strike a chord with you as well, here they are in no particular order.

  1. Most fliers are like the majority of readers we write for: there for a one-time ride. They remember the basic moves (characters, settings, plot twists) long enough for one or two flights (reads), then go about their lives and soon forget the why.

Committed fliers and writers do what they do for joy, true. But there’s more to it. Lots more. The fliers thrill to feeling air beneath them, rather than the ground, and come back to the chamber again and again and again, some until they become instructors or sky divers. They fly to challenge their abilities, to learn new skills and to hone the ones they already have. We writers know our stories’ worlds inside out, and can tell you each character’s favorite color or least favorite food without hesitation, whether or not that information ever appeared in our work. We read the works of others for inspiration, to discover another storytelling technique, to envision the skeleton beneath the narrative and to advance our own understanding of the craft. What’s more, writers are just as comfortable (if not more) in our created worlds than in this one.

  1. Almost no one gets it right the first time. Sitting outside the chute, watching other fliers before my appointment, it was easy to tell who had flown before. First-timers are almost always as gangly as newborn foals, arms and legs flailing around in the chamber, bodies more often bumping against the wall or sinking to the bottom net rather than hanging mid-air. They don’t understand that every small gesture in body posture brings sharp and sometimes sudden movements that are difficult to control. Large movements by untrained fliers are inadvisable.

I started my current novel-in-progress years ago and saved those first attempts in my archive. Whenever I am tempted to think it’ll never be good enough to publish, I go back and read those bits. Each time, I am reminded of my first flight – all flailing adverbs and plot-falls, and gangly character development and wild, unfocused movement with no particular direction. In the flight chamber and on the page, I am not as good as I will be many flights (novels) in the future, but there is no comparison between then and now. It’s encouraging to have come so far!

  1. Practice makes better. Each time I step into the chute and feel that blast of air pushing me up and up and up, each time I remember to reach forward to move back, or to straighten my legs to go up or relax to go down, each time I manage a controlled turn with small hand movements, I program my muscle memory to fly better, faster, higher. Experienced fliers can do so much more—spinning around the chamber, face out and grinning at the audience, or flying upside down with their legs bent as if sitting in a chair on the ceiling, or shooting up to the top of the chute and diving back to the net only to pull out of the dive in the nick of time. Their aerobatics are amazing and so much fun to watch. I always point at the instructor showing off like this and tell my fellow fliers, “I wanna do that!

Each time I put figurative pen to paper and crank out a story or a scene or a chapter, each time I review and revise a draft of my work, I program my writing muscles to tell better stories with stronger plots and more relatable characters. I don’t get it right every time, but it comes easier with every draft. It’s like watching the flight instructors and trying to figure out how they do the things they do, based on what I already know. The more books I read—and I mean good books, ones I want to emulate—the more I understand about the craft. Because I wanna do that too.

  1. Always take the class. No matter how many times I fly, I always sit through the beginners’ class. It’s a good reminder for me, especially when I can’t make it to the chamber more than a couple times a year, and I never know when a first-timer will ask a question that will prompt helpful answers from the instructor. Besides, it helps the fliers to bond, which makes the flight more fun.

I take as many writing classes as I can, because I don’t know all there is to know about writing and because other writers always have a new and interesting perspective on the craft. I learn something new every single time. I especially love the fiction workshops where I can bring in a piece-in-progress and have others in the trade read and critique it. Critical feedback is essential to the process, not just when reviewing my own work, but the works of others too. Just as when I am watching another flier for good and faulty technique, it’s incredibly helpful to see how or why something in another person’s submissions works (or doesn’t), and to discuss it with others who are seeking the same sort of education as I am.

  1. It’s way more fun when you relax and just let it happen. Yes, you have to learn the “rules” of flight so as to not injure yourself (or your instructor) in the tube, but staying relaxed is so important that the hand signal for “relax” is one of the first things the flight class teaches first-time fliers. Stiff limbs, head and back will suck the joy out of any flight experience, not to mention it will impede the flier’s technique and keep them from learning. Granted, the first time I stepped into a flight chamber with the wind going over 100mph, staying relaxed was the last thing on my mind. I was so stiff with trying to remember the three hand signals (including “relax”) that I probably flew like wooden sculpture—straight to the net. Only the instructor’s intervention got me in the air that day.

Writers need to have an idea of their goal, true, but even plotters have to acknowledge when the story needs to diverge from their plan and allow themselves (and their characters) to go with the flow. Otherwise, the story ends up with stiff, flat characters, contrived settings, and shallow plotlines. Not only that, but part of the joy of writing fiction (for me at least) is the surprise of where my characters sometimes take me. One might think that the writer knows everything that is going to happen (we know favorite colors and least favorite foods, right?). but that isn’t always the case. What’s more surprising is that when I relax and let my characters lead me away from my carefully wrought plan, the story often turns out better than what I had I mind.

For me, writing is my daily flight. I can’t always step into the flight chamber at iFly—would that I could!—but I can step onto the streets of New Canaan or into the cloud forest of Guatemala anytime I want. I find myself on a park bench in Boston or northern Maine, or arising from a torpor chamber on an explorer-class spacecraft or hoofing trays full of food to whiney diners in New York at the drop of a hat. Any hat. Even when I’m slumping, my head is full of worlds that bump up next to this reality. And that keeps my feet off the ground, even when I’m not in flight.