Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Is the Heart of a Story?

Does each story have a particular heart?

I've been thinking about this lately because I've started to re-structure and re-plan an old novel, as I'm hoping to re-write it almost from scratch. I have a new vision for it, a fairly different vision, with many new parts and meanings. And yet it is, in some ways, much the same story. The same characters, and many of the same events.

So what I have to find is a balance of the old and the new, a way to combine and mesh them into something that works better than the original. And in doing that I have to determnine what it is I want to keep. Or, perhaps, what it is I have to keep.

I have to find the heart of the story.

I have to find that part, or those parts, that drive the story, that make it what it is. What are the elements that make this story? What is it about this story that first captured my thoughts? What is it that first compelled me to write it? And that draws me back to it now, years later?

I think there's usually something particular. A character, an event, a scenario, an image, a feeling... it's probably different for everybody. And perhaps it's an amalgamation of many things. But I keep getting drawn back to the idea of what it might be that compels me to write a particular story. What's the heart?

What about you? What is the heart of your stories? What compels you to write? An image? A character? An emotion?

Also, the book trailer for my friend Jessica's upcoming novel, String Bridge, is now out. And it's awesome. Really, give it a listen and a watch. You can find Jessica Bell at The Alliterative Allomorph.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Songs of Dentistry and Death

Songs of Dentistry and Death
by Bryan Russell

Mitya wanted only a quiet place in the forest to shoot himself.

His hands felt heavy, and his boots. The winter uniform. And his gun most of all. It weighed more than all the bales of hay he had once hauled, all of them together. It weighed more than all the earth he’d plowed beneath his feet.

His breath plumed in the air, and he noticed the strangeness of silence. How long? Always the noise: the people; the voices; the orders; the bullets; the awfulness of artillery shaking him like a bone doll--a filling had fallen out once, rattling right out of his head. He’d tasted it, for a moment, on his tongue.

It was just the start, he knew. Pieces of him would keep falling off.

The trees had lightened, had somehow become more airy, more open. Winter light fell through bare branches. Yet he was deep in the forest.

Yes, somewhere around here. It was quiet. The snow would come, it would cover him. He would forget, and the world would forget him.

Mitya stopped.

There was a piano.

A piano sitting on the grass. A piano, alone and waiting.

Mitya looked around. There was nothing around him. No house, no cabin, no road. No path, no mark of foot or hoof or wheel. Just a piano. Somewhat battered, tilted slightly, as the ground seemed a little uneven.

How had it come here? Who would drag a piano out here?

People, of course, were fleeing the war. Carrying bags on their backs. But none of them were carrying pianos.

Mitya stepped forward. In the silence he thought he could hear notes. Tentative, distant, the hushed tones of memory.

Shostakovich, he thought. Yes. Not one of his great Soviet propaganda pieces. Some minor thing. A personal little piece. Small and forgotten. He didn’t know the name. Just this little snatch of melody, of hushed notes.

His fingers touched the keys. The sound stepped out, clean and good, reverberating off the cold trees. The notes drifted through the forest. He played the Shostakovich, the little bit he remembered. He wasn’t very good; he never had been, really, and he was rusty now, yet the music came out right, or at least it sounded good to his ear. A little plunky, but the notes danced for a moment, before drifting out amongst the trees.

There was another sound, then. The heavy thrumming of artillery, the deep vibration rolling through the earth.

Just drums, he thought. His notes still hung in the air, a fading counterpoint. The earth rumbled. Just drums. Mitya pulled his gun around and marched back into the trees, ignoring the pain in his teeth.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Our Written Words Are Objects of the Present

The discussion after my last post got me thinking about where it is our writing comes from, and it struck me that our words are always objects of the present. This is an almost inescapable fact, though there are many ways in which the 'present' can shape and reveal itself.

A writer can simply write about the present, of course, about current events, about the world they see around them. But they can also choose to write about something different. They can write about the past, the future, or something that has never existed, and likely never will.

Yet these are always filtered through the present. Indeed, they are filtered through the writer's consciousness, and this is ultimately a creation of the present moment. Words come from a specific mind, and a specific moment in the history of that mind, and that particularity in time is very important. A word written down yesterday might still seem right, still seem like you... at least most of them. Already, though, you start to wonder: why did I choose that word? That doesn't seem right...

And words chosen a year ago? A decade ago? They might seem utterly unfamiliar, with only a vague sense of deja vu connecting you to these oddities. You shake your head, you wonder about different words, better words... words of the mind's inescapable present.

It does not always matter what you write about. You can write about ancient history, but in some sense you're always writing about the present, writing from the present. These times are seen through the lens of now.

Sometimes this is obvious, with stories full of modern characters dressed in period costumes. And, obviously, deeper imaginative connections can be attempted, to see into a distant world, to sincerely feel and experience the possibility of such a life, such an existence. But we can never completely escape who we are--creatures of the present. The actual experiences of those people are gone, vanishing into that vast, opaque river that is time. We can research, we can delve for fact, for the right words, for accuracy... and yet our understanding of people is always a little anachronistic. Our understanding of people will always come partly from our own experience, from the people we've seen, the people we know, the people we've observed. We are endlessly filtering and transforming the world around us. Sometimes the transformations are small, and sometimes the transformations are large, visions of a seemingly new world. But, beneath the surface, there are always tethers to the present. We cannot escape our own subjectivity.

Indeed, why are such historical and futuristic subjects chosen? Likely because there is some element of conflict, of theme, with a deep connection to the writer's present, to the world around them, to the immediate sensations of their own psyche. There's a need. Something being sought, or desired, or felt. And this can impel exploration, and may send the mind racing backward, or forward, or into the fantastical unknown.

Or, of course, we can simply choose to write about the world around us, as we know it and see it. The need, here, is very immediate. Something is seen, or experienced, and it impels a question that needs some answer, with the written words as an attempt at just such an answer. And sometimes the answer isn't found, or the answer is a poor one. But there's no necessity for good writing. Everyone can't write brilliantly, and the quality of the expression of that answer will usually mean much more to an audience than to a writer (and great writing is usually going to be about the law of averages - to have one great piece of writing on a subject, many people will likely have to attempt it). To the writer, perhaps, all that really matters is the attempt. To answer the question, or to satisfy that strange need.

Perhaps the writing will be great. Odds are it won't. But the writing itself is important, the present act. Memoir, I think, is the clearest example of this. It is the present mind's attempt to answer questions about its own past, to bridge the gap between then and now, but the story is always filtered through the immediate consciousness in the now. Only that present mind exists (for the merest of instants), and its job is to try and excavate the past, piecing together something that no longer exists, a personal experiment in human paleontology.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tragedy and a Writer's Empathy

Who else out there is like me, and finds it difficult to turn away from what's happening in Japan?

The earthquake. The terrible tsunami. The nuclear crisis. And it's not only that it's riveting, this human dram, but that my writer's brain has turned on, has taken hold of events. I begin to imagine, to plot storylines through the tragedy. I begin to diagnose beginnings, middles, and ends. I begin to navigate conflicts.

I think some people react negatively to this, and think it dispassionate. "You want to write a story about this? What are you, a vulture?" Even some writers, I think, feel this, even about their own reaction, this fascination and watchfulness. I think there's a tendency to think of it as voyeuristic and exploitative, even if only subconsciously.

Yet I don't think this reaction really understands the psychological dynamics at work. Story is the way we think. This, in part, is how we understand the world. We make stories of it. We set beginnings and endings. Heck, we break our lives up into decades, years, months and days to help us do just that. It makes the world more comprehensible, providing patterns by which we can shape and delineate our experience. Memory, really, is simply the stories we repeat to ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously. Disordered minds are often disordered because the stories they tell themselves do not make sense.

And this idea of experience as story, I think, holds even greater strength for writers. We are writers because we are deeply touched by story, and in some way we've come to understand their value, and so we consciously try to shape narratives. This is an act of exploration, of trying to understand the world around us by shaping it into a story (no matter how strange and transformed that story might be).

And tragedies hold some of the deepest and most powerful stories. These are the difficult stories, the wrenching stories. And this is why they call to us, because they beg for understanding, beg for us to try and come to grips with them. Sometimes we need to do just that. The world can be a haunting place, and some exorcisms can only take place with a blessing of words.

This act of connective story, of fascination and recreation, is not dispassionate. It is, at heart, an action of extreme empathy. We might be distant, but we try to make ourselves immediate, we try to find a way inside the story, inside the people, inside the experiences, no matter how terrible, how tragic, how full of despair.

There is a human need to share, to take in experience, and to offer a little of ourselves in return. For when we write we invite others to take this exploration with us, to step into a new world, a new experience. To taste tragedy and joy...

Doesn't everyone feel this? At least a little? An accident occurs at the side of a road. People drive by... and everyone slows down and looks. Traffic jams are created from this simple desire, to look. But are we all ghouls, ready to drink in the misery? Or is it simply this need to understand; what is the story? What was its beginning, and middle, and end? What is this experience? For a fleeting moment we enter that story, and we wonder, we feel, we try to share and experience it.

For most, however, this is a fleeting thing. The car moves past, and as the scene fades into the mirror the empathetic connection is lost.

But a writer? Sometimes those connections are strong. We have seen and felt a fragment of something, and it won't let us go. And we want to get to the bottom of it. We need to understand, to try and grasp the human meaning, to piece the puzzle together, to find and shape and share the experience in its entirety.

And so we write. And so we tell a story.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Yellow Bus

by Bryan Russell

Yellow Bus

Sara checked her hat and her mittens. The other kids were already heading out the door, except Michael. Sara stomped her feet, her snowpants making her legs feel like heavy balloons.

“Yellow Bus?” Michael said.

“Yes, it’s time for Yellow Bus,” Sara told her classmate.

Michael’s smudged face turned down to his coat. He tried to do up his zipper, but his fingers did not seem to recognize the task. Ms. McCarthy started to walk over, but Sara was already pulling her mittens off with her teeth. They dangled there, red and woolen, as Sara grasped Michael’s zipper and did it up.

“Yellow Bus?” Michael said.

“Come on,” Sara said, pulling her mittens back on. She walked out into the hallway and Michael followed. “Quick, quick,” she said, “we don’t want to miss it.”

Sara pushed out the heavy door to the parking lot, and as it swung back it banged Michael. He was always slow to push through, but sometimes Sara forgot.

“Sorry,” Sara said.

“Yellow Bus!”

Michael pointed. There were a row of yellow buses, but Michael was only pointing at one of them. It was a third the size of the others, and idled at the end of the row. There were lots of yellow buses, but only one Yellow Bus.

Jasmine sauntered over. She was an older girl.

“Yellow Bus!” Jasmine said, miming Michael’s faint lisp.

“I take Yellow Bus,” Michael said.

“You take the Dumb Bus,” Jasmine said. “It’s little cuz your brain is little.”

Michael put his head down.

Sara pulled him. “You gotta get on your bus, Michael. Come on. You gotta get on Yellow Bus.”

Jasmine sauntered after. “Dumb bus, dumb bus, dumb bus.” She wore low-slung jeans. She had older sisters. Everyone said Jasmine was cool. Sometimes she smoked.

“Come on, Michael,” Sara said, trying to push him up the steps onto the bus. His face had scrunched in on itself. His eyes were wet.

“Dumb bus, dumb bu-u-u-us.” Jasmine was singing now, pretending she had a microphone.

The Yellow Bus turned its lamplight face and looked at Jasmine. It growled its engine and then jerked forward, its grill opening and yellow teeth clomping on the girl, swallowing her head. Another bite and most of her torso was lost inside. There was a crunching sound. Only the legs, the low-slung jeans, stuck out.

Sara watched the legs wiggle a moment, one shoe falling off, and then Yellow Bus tossed its head back and the legs slid inside. Crunch crunch. The wipers flashed across, once, twice, and then again. A puff of smoke belched out the tailpipe. Yellow Bus was chewing, though its bright gaze had already turned back to the road, to the larger buses ahead.

Sara pushed Michael onto Yellow Bus. He was calm now. The doors swung shut behind him.

“Everyone ready? Sara?” Ms. McCarthy called.

There was a sneaker on the ground. Turned on its side. Sara kicked it under Yellow Bus.

“I’m ready,” Sara said.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What is the Function of a Story Opening?

Some writers struggle with endings. Some writers struggle with those wide and ungainly middles.

I have always struggled with beginnings.

I think, for the longest time, this was because I only partly knew what an opening was supposed to do; the function of an opening within the overall story was vague to me.

Not completely, of course. I think, as a young writer, I wrote very instinctively. Yes, I'd read books on writing, and taken classes, and knew the basics: the hook, the rising action, the climax, the denouement. But most of what I did was instinctive, grasping at half-buried knowledge and following my imagination.

I think I knew the part that most writers know. The opening is a hook. What does that mean? It's a simple metaphor, really. The opening should hook the reader like a fish and reel them in. No hook? No food at the end of the day. Now, I wasn't so naive as to think that this meant a major action scene was necessary to start every story. But this was basically my idea of what an opening was, and should do: hook.

And, yes, this is important. An opening should definitely hook a reader and convince them to turn the pages. But what is it, exactly, that hooks a reader? And is that all that an opening should do?

I'm currently reading Robert McKee's Story, and one of the things I like about the book is that it relates some very clear ideas about both what an opening is and what it should do. This would have been extraordinarily helpful to know ten years ago, before I learned a lot of it on my own through trial and error. Mostly error. It took me a lot of bad openings to learn a few simple things.

The key element of an opening is the inciting incident, the event that sets the story in motion. Now, it can come on the first page, or you can take a bit of time and lead up to it. But it is always the hinge upon which the story swings. And, so, what is this opening supposed to do? What is it that engages the reader?

One of the simple keys is that this inciting incident relates to character. It's not simply that the major hook is inherently interesting, but that it changes the main character's situation. It sets up a conflict, the most basic sort of conflict, the kind that drives almost all stories: a conflict between what the character has and what the character wants or needs. A sudden gulf is opened. And the character must find a way to cross that gulf.

And this last element is another important aspect of the opening--it should point the way through the story's main conflict and toward the climax and conclusion. There are exceptions, of course (there are always exceptions). But a strong opening often acts as a sort of foreshadowing for the climax, setting up the possibility of the final conflict, a climax which the reader wants to see.

(Beware the spoilers...)

The Lord of the Rings: Frodo discovers the dangerous nature of the One Ring ---> Frodo dangles the Ring over the fires of Mount Doom.

The Road: The man's wife kills herself, unable to face the post-apocalyptic world and continue along the road, introducing the despair/hope conflict ---> The man continues down the road and dies protecting his son, but he offers hope.

No Country For Old Men: Moss finds millions of dollars in the desert amidst a bunch of dead men, and wants the money--and he must keep it away from others who want it just as badly ---> Moss is killed, the villain gets the money, and the sheriff contemplates the meanness of the world.

This is the function of an opening. It engages the reader, yes, but it engages them because it brings them inside the story and conflict. It breaks open a gulf before a character and sets them on a path to find a way across. And the reader wants to know how the character will do this, and what will happen on the other side.

This isn't fancy, or necessarily even deep, but it took me a lot of writing to figure this out. I think the problem, often, is that we think of story elements in isolation. What is my opening? Oh, it's this cool thing that happens. People will love it! But the importance of the opening is not in its inherent excitement, but in its connection to the rest of the story. The opening is procreative, the story created in that singular moment. It is the Big Bang that pushes motion and life into the fictional world, and story velocity is often a function of how well this opening is integrated into the complicating events that follow.

And what about you? What does a story opening mean to you? And how did you learn to write one?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Invisible Skins

by Bryan Russell

Invisible Skins

The chameleon crept along the line of people. Its green skin filled with shadow blooms like thunderclouds, the color washing through until the chameleon was invisible against the smooth grey carpet.

Small feet, fingers sharp with little claws, crept down the aisle. The chameleon was like a small blur of cloud against a vast iron sky. The black shoes of mourners, the long black-panted legs—they were like trees growing in reverse, growing out of the dark sky and sprouting up toward the distant earth, eyes and coiffed roots searching, searching, always searching.

The chameleon’s tongue touched the air, which tasted of sadness and grief and chemotherapy. The lizard moved forward. A long tail trailed behind, an arrow pointing to safety, to some small crack sheltered from the moist breaths of mourners.

A coffin. Little claws grasping the wood. Up, up, up, like the tree legs. A man lay within. The chameleon stared at the figure with dry little eyes. It was, everyone said, Edgar Martinez, but his skin was not the lustrous skin she knew, smelling of Old Spice and home—it was grey as the carpet, and hinted of some bitter detergent.

The lizard stood, staring, the color of mahogany now, swirls like fingerprints across her skin, like grains of wood, the DNA of change. Edgar Martinez did not stare back. His eyes were closed. It wasn’t him. He was too still. He had the stillness of the chameleon’s baby brother when she watched him, sleeping, unmoving, that moment of stillness before the baby finally breathed, that moment of stillness when she started to worry, to wonder if something was wrong, why wasn’t he breathing, until he breathed, sucking in a breath that made his little chest rise and fall. Except Edgar Martinez did not breathe, his chest did not rise, he was caught in that endless moment of worry and waiting, a premonition of wrongness.

Other people wanted to see this statue of Edgar Martinez. They waited in line. Solemn faces. They could not see the chameleon. She was invisible.

If they could, they would talk to her, these people. Talk to her, pat her head, and look awkwardly away. Their words would remind her that her name was Erica Martinez, but she didn’t want to remember that, her name was dangerous, her name connected her in some way she didn’t understand to the solemn people. They would hand her Kleenex. She would take the Kleenex and sit, tearing it into small strips, and then smaller strips, and then little pieces. They would drift slowly downward like flakes of snow. Little windswept drifts would gather at her feet.

But Erica Martinez was an invisible chameleon and didn’t like the snow. Hers was a secret life of nooks and crannies, of hot sun and cool shadow. There was no snow, just desert winds that peeled off tears and husks of dry skin.