Thursday, June 18, 2009

How do you find your way IN to a story?

I've been here before. The story is written. Told in an engaging way. Finally.

It has taken many versions and experiments with different approaches to get it right. There were many questions I asked myself. Who's story is it? What's important? Should it be a wide-angle view or a close-up perspective? Third person past? Third person present? For that matter, what about first person present or past? That would accomplish telling the story from the main character's point of view. But that could be problematic as I would lose the historical context I need for kids to understand where this person is coming from and why it matters.

For Almost Astronauts, there were MANY experiments until I settled on the right way In. It takes time. And I am here again, now. With a new story, new friends. Because the women in Almost Astronauts DID become my treasured friends--some of them truly, in real life, others in my writer's mind. In the end, the story was for them. And now there are new people in my head.

In some ways, the process with nonfiction is so different than fiction; yet in other ways, so similar. With both, storytelling mode is paramount. But when I'm writing a novel, the people in my head exist only there. I choose where they go, what they feel, what's important to them, and how they react in every given situation. There is a certain freedom in that, which by no means implies that it is easier than nonfiction, because it isn't. But with nonfiction, of course, the people I write about are real. Every detail I convey comes from fact. Where the sun was shining in the room on the day they were born. Fact. What person they bumped into on the beach who changed their life. Fact. Every step of the way, the choices we make in the HOW of presenting nonfiction is inextricably linked to the facts.

So, how DO you find the way in? Picture book or longer form? What serves the story best? What serves the reader best? Almost Astronauts started out, incredibly, as a picture book. What was I thinking? My friend Ellen Jackson told me at the early stages of that phase that I was "trying to fit a size 10 foot in a size 5 shoe." And she was right.

I think of all these things as I start transforming the next book from short form to long. I have done this twice now--starting out in picture book and slowly realizing that the subject demands a larger treatment. And it makes perfect sense to me in hindsight because both stories are big and complex and center on many people instead of one main character, so in retrospect I was searching for a way to manage them, to contain them. But ultimately, letting go, and allowing them to loom large and choose their own shoe size is, in the end, a much more comfortable fit. Maybe next time I won't have to try on so many other sizes first. But frankly, isn't that half the fun?

Each new story is just that--brand spanking new. Every book is a new beginning. How exciting--because I also know more than I did before with each new book, and have more tools in my belt. And also potentially exhausting--because I know how complex the journey I am about to embark on is in order to retell this story--finally--the right way. I have found my way IN again.

How do you find your way in?


Mark Herr said...

I think voice is important, especially in non-fiction. That’s what makes the difference between a dull text book and an exciting read. And I think having a love and interest in what you are writing about helps that voice come through.

As for your picture books becoming something more, starting out that way might actually help you focus on what the most important things are in the story you are trying to tell and then you build from there. It forces you to strip everything down at the start and it keeps you focused. It almost sounds like a condensed outline in a very unusual way. If it works for you, don’t worry about it too much. Much better than planning a trilogy and finding out you only have a picture book’s worth of story to tell. :-)

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I don't even know what my story is about until I've done several drafts. I so envy those writers who can figure this out, write a synopsis and a few chapters, and sell the book in advance. Not me.

Though fiction and nonfiction are equally difficult, the most frustrating thing for me about nonfiction, especially biography, is lack of information. Not knowing the angle of light in the room where they were born may be important, but it pales besides not knowing the year or the place where they were born, who their parents were, etc etc etc. But of course, this lack of knowledge forces us to be more creative with the facts we do know and the story we do tell.

Unknown said...

When I first started writing I went through many drafts to find my way in. But I learned to let it incubate in my brain. I tell my brain what to think about and give it a deadline (which can be several weeks or months) to come up with a solution. I keep pecking away at it in my thoughts at odd times. Then I start to get inklings. Finally the pressure becomes so great that I have to sit down and start writing. I always amazes me that this process works. I find it relatively painless and always mysterious.

Wendie O said...

In one of my first biographies, I searched (and researched) for 3 months to find the beginning. Finally I found the perfect place, wrote the draft, handed it in, and was on my third revision with the publisher when I picked up another book about the same person by another author -- and discovered that THAT author had used the very same event for Her beginning.

Amazing. -wendieOld

Cheryl Harness said...

More than once I have found it useful to begin with the time/space intersection at which the subject of my biography entered the world. A date & place is like one of those compressed paper flowers that unfurls its petals when plunked into water. What was happening in the world there & then? What had led to that moment? My copy of Bernard Grun's The Timetables of HISTORY, A Horizontal Linkage of People & Events is well & truly dog-eared with long use. For me, the more I know about the context in which the person lived, the more his or her life is illuminated.