Thursday, December 22, 2011

What Every Writer Needs To Know

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

In his autobiographical book Rewrites, playwright Neil Simon explains that writer’s block isn’t when a writer has no idea what to write; it’s when a writer has plenty of ideas but doesn’t trust himself to choose the right one.

The main thing you need to know is that writing is about taking a leap of faith in your story--and yourself.

Detail from Toren the Teller's Flight, book two of Toren the Teller's Tale

Toren the Teller’s Tale is a fantasy novel about a magical storyteller and her struggle to accept the magic within herself. She has a hard time taking that leap of faith. It seems wrong. The world doesn’t approve. She loves her own magic, but trusting in it is scary, terrifying, in fact.

In a way, Toren’s story is the story of every writer. We all have fears. We all struggle to accept our own magic. But we have to accept it. We have to believe. Our stories need us; but, more importantly, our readers need our stories, although they might not know it yet.

In the following scene from chapter nine, Toren is attending a tellers’ gathering as a storyteller’s apprentice. What the others at the gathering don’t know is that she’s a girl disguised as a boy, and that her real master is a wizard who hired a storyteller to take her to the gathering so that she can learn about the magic of the storytellers.

“The first step to becoming a great teller,” one elder master said, “is to know your audience. You must know what they wear, eat, think and believe, how they live, how they die, and where their souls go when they slumber. Your story is a journey to a greater truth, and your listener will not join you on that journey if he doesn't see it as his journey. You must paint your story in such a way that the listener will see himself inside it.”

“So true, so true,” commented another. “A teller must study everything--from the smallest details of our mundane existences to our grandest hopes and fears.”

“Is that what a story is then?” one of the older apprentices asked. “A mirror showing the listener exactly what he is?”

A wave of laughter rippled through the hall.

“Of course not,” shouted a teller in the back. “That is the very last thing a story should be” He stepped closer to the platform so everyone could see and hear him. “Indeed, it must start with the listener, but it should take him far from his reality. In each person’s mind, he is the center of the world, for it begins and ends with his experiences, thoughts, and beliefs. The listener is the one and only hero of the story of his life. In his mind all other heroes and all other stories are insignificant. But in reality he is of no more importance than any other sorry soul of the millions who have lived or have yet to live. He is a drop in the endless ocean of existence, which carries us all where it will. Of course, you must never tell your listener that. If you do, he will throw you out on your ear. The only mirrors you should show him are those he sees in his dreams. You must say, ‘Look here you are in my story. The perfect hero, that’s you. You only need to close your eyes, and I will take you there.’”

A murmur of approval greeted his words. A few even applauded.

Giddy yawned. “Don’t you find this dull?” he asked me.

I raised a finger to my lips to tell him to be quiet. My real master’s words echoed in my mind. Pay close attention to everything the master tellers say, he ordered. You are here to learn about the magic of the telling. And so I did.

“Now, now,” countered the first elder master, “not all of our stories are dreams. Sometimes we lead our listeners through their nightmares and guide them safely through to the other side. Only two things remain constant: the listener is always the starting point and our goal is always the greater truth. The easiest stories to tell are the dreams or nightmares you and your listener share. Discover what you have in common, and from that common place of departure begin the grandest journey your soul will allow.”

“But what if you and your audience have nothing in common?” asked one of the apprentices. “What if you tell a story to a king, for example? Do you tell him a tale about royalty, even though you know nothing about life at court? It won’t ring true. And what about all the tales of princesses and daring knights? Surely, they’re not only for nobles. My master tells these tales to peasants all the time, and they love them.”

“Yes,” said another apprentice. “And what about made up stories, ones that deal with fantastic things that could never be true? Where’s the common starting point, and where’s the greater truth?”

The elder master said the answer to this question was obvious, and he turned it over to us. I hesitated at first, but when no one else spoke, I asked if I might be allowed to. He nodded.
“We all have common hopes and fears,” I said. Sol reminded me to raise my voice. I continued a bit louder. “From the lowliest peasant to the king, we dream of someone who will love us more than life itself. In her dreams, every maiden is a princess longing for love; in his dreams, every youth is the one who will win her heart. Even the king’s hopes and fears are as common as our own.”

“And what about fantastic tales?” the elder master asked.

“My master’s story was fantastic,” I replied. “And yet it’s true. A man wants a son to follow in his footsteps and may be blinded to a truth he doesn’t wish to see. A woman may know the truth and be afraid to speak it. And a child may suffer for not being what the world demands her to be.”

The elders smiled at my answer, but one of them shook his finger.

“Although what you say is true, young man,” he said, “I believe a story’s truth is even greater than that. One day you’ll see. You’ll think you are telling a story, but the truth of it will take over, and you’ll realize the thing you thought you created was always there--not in this place and time but somewhere in the infinite universe and as true as your own existence. We tellers are bridges from the past to the present, from the present to the future, from distant lands to here, and from here to everywhere.”


Realize there’s a journey your reader needs to make, and only you can take your reader there.

Embrace your own magic. Trust your story. Trust yourself.

Your story, your characters, and your readers are depending on you.


C D Meetens said...

That was a lovely excerpt! I get writer's block sometimes, but, luckily, (so far) mine has been more my characters refusing to go down a certain path because that's not what they would do. Once I let them have their way, the words flow again. I guess that's having trust in my characters.

Shevi said...

Thanks, C D. Isn't it great when characters take control of the story? Put them in a hard spot, and watch how they deal with it. We do have to trust our characters and let them be who they need to be. Good point!