Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What Are the Words Telling You?

By Deb McLeod

Creating depth of meaning can be the key to a story, scene or novel’s success. I’m a great proponent of the phrase: How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?* I let the writing that connects with the deeper me tell me what I’m trying to say in the story I’m telling.

Without getting too woo-woo about it, when you write, if you let yourself, you connect to the same place dreams come from. If you’re a dream watcher, you know you can learn about yourself and what the world means to you, if you really look at your dreams. If you let the personal symbols, stories and the clichés you dream about tell you what your brain is mulching, you can understand yourself and shift your life to the next stage of whatever growth period you’re in. Your writing can be equally as illuminating, both for yourself and for the story you’re working on.

As a fiction or a memoir writer, your job is to become the best deep reader of your own work that you can be. You, above all, have to get it.

If the scene you’re writing falls flat, or if the story is pure plot, just cardboard characters moving from one plot point to the next, there are some things you can do to better understand the meaning and the potential for depth that is there.
  1. One way is to write about what the story of the scene means. But you can’t come from that analyzer
    Writing Coach Deb McLeod's editor Lydia
    place – you know the place: where your editor lives. The best way to do this is to set a timer for say, twenty minutes. Then freewrite. Pen to page, don’t stop writing no matter what. No thinking, just writing about the characters and the scenes, who did what and what it all means. You may surprise yourself with what you already know about your story.
  2. Really read what you’ve written so far. Look for repetition. Study the images and the symbols. Look for familiar sentiments. Read your work like your high school teacher might have asked you to read a piece of literature. What does the piece mean?
  3. Or, you might want to write about what’s up for you at the moment. Sort of a “morning pages” freewrite or two to see what’s going on in your world and where you might be in your current growth period. There are authors who claim (and I agree with them) that if you’re stuck finishing a writing project, you might look at your personal story and where you are currently stuck there.
Deb McLeod explains growth periods
For those of you who don’t look at life as a series of growth periods, here’s what I mean when I say that. Growth periods can be broken down into three stages. Think of the life of a butterfly: caterpillar, cocoon, butterfly. Or the three stages of your character’s growth: Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. Something happens in your world and you take a mini-journey as you’re changed by it. You enter a new way of being. You make it through the long middle cocoon cycle and in the end you’re transformed. Just like your characters.

Here’s an example from one of my writers in the Friday Writing Circle. A freewrite she did about her life transformed her short story.

This writer had been working on a short story about a not-well-liked stingy golf pro who is dying and loses all of his money. In a last ditch effort to buy a cure or leave something behind, he buys a lottery ticket. The first one ever. He wins and builds a legacy golf course that offers free greens fees to kids in acknowledgement of the hard time he had developing his talent when he was young.

That’s going to be a big change for a character in a short story.

In an earlier writing circle, the writer surprised herself by writing his death scene. It was a great scene, only it came before the end of the story.

She knew the piece was about legacy and stinginess of spirit. All of that was obvious in the plot and the scenes she had accumulated. But what was underneath the plot?

One of our Friday freewrites gave her a clue about her story. Her freewrite was about sometimes being the quintessential wife, the straight-man to her husband’s jokes. The arranger and caretaker of their social lives in which he is often the star. It was an interesting freewrite that gave us a glimpse into a facet of the writer’s world.

A minor character in her story is Vanessa, the golf pro’s wife. The straight-man to his world of golfing fame.

Playing what if, she wrote about what was left when the golf pro dies. The lottery ticket had been misplaced, so for a few weeks Vanessa thinks he left her penniless. But she finds it, cashes in and chooses to build a legacy golf course in her husband’s name. He will be known for the legacy she arranged. In a poignant scene at the end, her nephew will scatter her ashes over the golf course when she, too dies.

Now the story links to the author’s feelings of sometimes being a straight-man to her husband’s jokes. The story amplifies the feelings the writer expressed in her freewrite. It has a depth of meaning it didn’t have before.

The story connects to women on a wife-theme. It connects, perhaps, to a dying breed of woman who may have played the straight-man throughout history.

What if she were to call it "The Straight-Man," or "Good Night, Gracie," with a nod to the role reversal of the Burns-Allen comedy team? Would these titles lend any depth to the story or clues to its meaning?

Sometimes when you write about what you’re writing about, you can better understand it. Sometimes if you understand you, you understand your writing. So let yourself freefall and then figure it out. It’ll be worth it.

*E. M. Forster quote: “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” (Note there are many variations on the actual words he used.)

About the Author: Deb McLeod, is a writer, creative writing coach and founder of The Writing Ranch. She has both an MFA and a BA in creative writing. She has been teaching and coaching for over ten years. Deb has published short fiction in anthologies and journals. She has written articles and creative nonfiction. Deb has been a professional blogger, tech writer, graphic artist and Internet marketing specialist.