Everybody has a story to tell. Years ago, I was reading a book of interviews by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel about The Great Depression and realized you could interview people about anything, from bathtubs to boyfriends, and get the most fascinating stories, stories which would affect readers and maybe even change their lives.
Studs Terkel’s way to write, asking about and recording other people’s stories, is only one way. I’ve written a number of memoirs, which are just about my own experiences, and a novel, which is a sideways glance at my own take on life. But there are writers who have published long lists of novels, and others who have written an armload of non-fiction books. There are writers who hit the New York Times best-seller list over and over, and writers you’ve never heard of who, once discovered, become your all-time favorites.
But why should YOU write? Because it’s fun. It lets you rant about the things you can’t stand, and support the things you love in your own words, in your own accent, which only you can do. It lets you learn from Google and Wikipedia as you research the details of your topic (What was the best selling perfume in 1982? Who was Millard Fillmore’s vice president?). It lets you express yourself. It lets you entertain. It lets you amuse. It lets you encourage. It lets you inspire, if that’s your bent. But who’s gonna care?
Well, that depends on your audience.
Are you writing a letter to the editor? A poem to your lover? Or a family history for family only? (Uncle Mac liked to wear Aunt Ruby’s nightgown. “More comfy than pajamas,” he’d say.)
Is it a book you hope to publish? What kind of book? A quirky mystery? The great American novel? A cookbook featuring your grandma’s locally famous pickles and preserves? Maybe it’s a blog. Answering the question “Who’s my audience?” is a good place to start. Even if the answer to that question is “Me” go ahead. Do it. Get your thoughts on paper, or into the computer. Just have some idea where you’re aiming your words.
Next question: in what form?
No matter your subject matter, you need to understand form. If it’s a memoir, read other people’s memoirs and see what form they took. Did they tell their story in a straight line, or go back and forth in time, using flash-backs, imagining the future, talking about the present? Decide what your finished product is going to look like. Is it to be a printed book? An e-book? A script? A hand written and hand-bound treasure? The aforementioned blog? You can easily study form by looking at other people’s work on the internet, at the library, and at the bookstore.
You’ll notice that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If it’s fiction, between the middle and the end you’ll probably find a twist, perhaps a double twist, or a digression, or a stall, adding excitement or suspense to the project. It’ll have a plot, and a subplot or two to cut away to. Subplots can add humor or pathos to a tale and they keep the reader from dozing off over too much of the main story.
Don’t begin a long-form project without an outline. In it, create the characters with all their likeability, their nastiness, their good points and flaws, and state what happens scene by scene. You can get a head start on this by using 3” X 5” cards on a pin-up board. Use different colors for different characters so that, with one look, you can see that your heroine disappears in scene five, and another major character doesn’t show up until scene six. Fix all that, then expand this bare-bones picture into a written outline.
When you get to the actual telling of your story, working from the outline, add the small details: the weather, a description of the place where the action happens, the mood of the main characters. What makes them interesting? What are your hopes and fears for them? What’s likely to happen next? Should the audience guess or not? Take it to the limit – after all its twists and turns how does it end?
Let’s say you’ve gone this far, but you’re still not quite satisfied with your story. You’d like to make it more enthralling, deeper, more memorable. Perhaps a class is in order. Right now, online, there are master classes in writing by best selling authors Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood and James Patterson, to name a few (just Google “Master Classes in Writing”). You can find one which fits your genre.
On the Big Island, there are classes, too. Attending a class is a great way to connect with other writers to get information and feedback about your work. I can recommend The Puna Writers’ Workshops; People there are working on various projects, and giving each other encouragement to suit. These days they’re meeting online, but by July they’ll be live again at The Stables at Hawaiian Shores (call Dawn Hurwitz at 808 965-9600). You can find the Mystery Authors of Hawaii Island – MAHI – on Facebook, or by contacting Jane Hoff at email@example.com. They’re currently meeting on Zoom, but they usually meet for lunch at someone’s home or at Basically Books in Hilo. There are more writing groups in Waimea, Kona, and Volcano including a weekly Writer’s Group at Tutu’s House in Hilo and a Kohala Writer’s Group. Find more resources and groups through the Hawaii Writers Guild.
You know you have a story to tell. While we’re still in lockdown, why not explore the one you’ve always wanted to write about? Start working on it and if you get stuck, join a group of like-minded people who’ll be sure to help. And when you do, tell ‘em Big Island Pulse sent you!
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Lynne Farr is the author of five humorous books: Off The Grid Without A Paddle, Off The Grid And Over The Hill, Off The Grid What’s Cookin’?, Speaking Shinglish, and On The Seventh Day She Rested, available at Basically Books in Hilo, and at Amazon.com in print and for the Kindle.
Featured photo via Flickr user Doug Davey, Creative Commons licensed.