Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Making Bad Things Happen to Good People

     A writer friend of mine commented to me recently that she has a hard time making the stakes high enough for the characters in her stories.  I understood what she meant.  I frequently have the same problem.  I like my characters and I feel uncomfortable making bad things happen to them.

     As I am going through my stories, linking them to one another, I am constantly evaluating whether the conflicts and problems that I present my characters with are high enough stakes to matter. And they have to matter not only to the original character but to succeeding generations as well since what happens in one story reverberates in the others.

     If a character suffers from mental illness, or a character divorces or dies, it is easy enough to see how others can be touched by the crisis.  But not every story is about life or death.  Some stories involve little changes and small developments; the impact on a character's life can seem subtle at first, and then have larger implications later.  My job is to make the conflict, the crisis or the problem be important enough to change the trajectory of a character's life, to make it believable, to make it heartfelt, to make it matter.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Plan your Work and Work Your Plan

     I have made a plan.  By Labor Day I will have the flow of my linked stories completed, and all the stories will fit together.  How to get it done is the big question.

     There are fifteen weeks until Labor Day.  I made a calendar delineating the progress I expect to make each week. Although each story has to stand alone,  perfectly complete with a beginning, a middle and an end, each story must also contain the seeds of another--a character or event, a mention of something that links back or forward to another story.  I have picked the ten to twelve stories, already written, that I hope will comprise the collection which traces the four generations of family.  Now I have to refine the stories and make the links work.

     This week I am rewriting the first story of the collection, "Ruby 1941-1945."  The plan is to complete the first edit and go on to story number two, "Earth, Air, Fire, Water."  On my calendar I have the names of the stories, the names of the characters, the dates and events that weave back and forth.  I intend to complete a genogram, or family tree, so that I have a visual picture of the four generations.

     If I stick to my plan then, as I say above, 'by Labor Day I will have the flow of my linked stories completed, and the stories will fit together.' To do that I have to work the plan.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hitting The Doldrums...Again

     I was complaining in my writing class this week.  I could not seem to progress with my book.  I had decided the stories had no merit.  They all needed to be rewritten. There was no conflict.  Why would anyone want to read them?  Even I didn't.  
     I had started this project of linking short stories with absolute certainty that there were enough of them and they were related, and suddenly I was not so sure.  What had happened to the thirteen stories I thought had? Now that I had decided they were all terrible--except maybe the ones that had already been published--I didn't have enough.
     Which characters were worth writing about?  Following? I couldn't decide. Where was the fire? Where was the passion? I had none.
     My writing teacher asked "What was the thread that connected one story to another? Can you find a question you can ask at the beginning of the first story and answer by the end of the last one?"
     I went to sleep thinking about this, and in the magic way the unconscious works,  I awoke with the beginnings of an answer.  These are family stories.  They revolve around the ways the family members connect one to the other, the ways they come together and the ways they split apart.  So the overriding question is can we keep our connections and what happens when we don't? 
     It helped to pose the question. I saw there was conflict, and plenty of it.  I began to rethink the story links, to put together the family tree and watch what happened when a character in one story was impacted by something that happened to a character in another story. Slowly it began to make sense again. I hope I can keep the focus.
     But I am aware that this process is not a straight line; it is a kind of zig-zag.  And I expect I will be in the doldrums again as I go through the work.  The trick is not to stay there.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Simple Name Change Can Help Link Your Stories

     It is amazing how the simplest change can link one story to another. In my writing I am linking previously published stories to others that have not yet been published. In doing so I realized, of course, that names must remain consistent in all the stories.
     One of my published stories, The Black Umbrella, which appeared in the 2008 Edition of The Westchester Review, was about a member of the first generation of my fictional extended family when he was an old man. This character's name was Sam.
     I have since written several other stories about the family and realized that I had also used the name Sam for a brother-in-law in that first generation.  All of these first generation people appear in one story, and as I began to draw a family tree, with its marriages, divorces, births and deaths, I settled, once and for all, on each character's name.  The brother-in-law in that first family became 'Sam.'  The old man needed a different name; he became 'Max.'
     I went back to The Black Umbrella, nicely stored in a folder on my computer, and, with a simple "Search and Replace" function, changed Sam to Max throughout the story.  I saved the story in a new folder, called Linked Stories.
     To underline the connection, I also wrote a new sentence in which the old man, who was already looking at a wall of old family photographs in one scene in the Black Umbrella, sees a sepia colored wedding photo of his brother-in-law and sister.  Thus these two men are forever linked to one another in two completely separate stories which trace family lives over four decades.