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People did not want to hear about simple things.  They wanted to hear about great things–simply told.   — Jane Addams

What makes a story worth reading?  I decided to conduct my own ‘unscientific’ poll and here’s what the reading public at large had to say:

  • “Oh, it has to absolutely grab me from the first page or forget about it.”
  • “Hmm…good characters, interesting events and of course, some risks along the way.”
  • “I like the kind of suspense that keeps me up at 2 a.m.”
  • “I think it’s important to make a connection with the main character.  I like stories that relate.”
  • “I want a story that’s going to make me sit back and say I never thought of it that way.”
  • “Two words: gripping plot.”
  • “When I get home from work all I want is an escape for a while.  A good story will do that for me.”
  • “I think one of the purposes of a good story is to remind us that life is indeed manageable.”
  • “Stories that begin well, usually end well.”

And my all-time favorite:

  • “Why don’t you ask J.K. Rowling?  I think she has it figured out.”

With writing comes an awesome responsibility, wouldn’t you say?  Just look at this list.  Compelling characters, gripping plots, nail-biting suspense—and oh, make it look au naturale.

Well, I have some good news and some bad news.  The bad news is that I couldn’t get a hold of J.K. Rowling.  The good news is that there are a few things one can do to help heighten the chances that your story will be found compelling from page one.

Have frequent conversations with your characters

Get to know your characters.  Sit down and ask them questions that not only pertain to the story, but also ones that help you understand the passions and motivations that drive your character.  Your readers might not give a wit about George’s favorite meal, but maybe there a difference between how a ‘meatloaf & mashed potatoes’ guy responds to a situation than, let’s say, one who embraces a low-carb diet.  Talking to a character also helps the writer become aware of the character’s voice and body language.  William Faulkner once said he knew his story was working once his character stood up and cast a shadow.  When characters become real people to you, they’ll also become real people to your readers.

Keep the background in the background

Imagine how silly it’d be if we walked around wearing billboards that not only explained our origins, but also in short order listed all the experiences we’ve encountered along the way.  Pretty ridiculous, huh?  The same holds true for your characters. Sure, as the author, you know the whole story, but don’t explain more than necessary.  Ernest Hemingway called it the “Iceberg Theory,” or as it’s sometimes known the “Theory of Omission.”  Basically, the theory states the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface but be made transparent implicitly.  Allow your readers to inhabit your character’s world through action and dialogue.  In other words, ‘show, don’t tell.’

Let your characters speak for themselves

Don’t merely write dialogue, but let your characters speak for themselves.  Listen to what they have to say.  Pick up on the nuances and rhythms.  Write only what you hear.  Allow the character to create the story and never, never, never manipulate a character to make a plot work.  It’s not fair to the character or the story.

Start your story at a critical point

To pique your readers’ interest from the get-go, place your character at odds with something much larger than him or herself by the end of the first page, if not the first paragraph.  What does your character yearn for?  What are his/her needs or desires? What obstacles stand in the way?  What are the stakes? If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

Write out of passion

Many times, writers are given the advice to write what they know.  That’s all fine but think how much more exhilarating it is to write about something you love.  If you write about the things that move you, you’ll soon find your readers following you on the journey.

 

What kind of stories keep you reading?  Feel free to leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.

 

observation

Quick—how many of you can remember what your significant other ate for breakfast this morning? What was your daughter’s stance as she stood by the bus stop?  Can you describe something unique about the barista who handed you your Venti Caramel Macchiato?  What song played on the radio during your commute?  What was the headline?  Can you name at least five things you witnessed before reaching your destination?

How long did it take to answer the questions above?  If you could answer them all instantaneously, you win the washer and dryer set behind Door #3.  Just kidding.  Really, though, how many needed a few minutes or maybe even quite a few to conjure up the images of the morning?  Or worse, how many couldn’t remember a single one?

It’s difficult when we live in a world obsessed with the destinations rather than living in present.  We race here, race there, trying to stay afloat and miss out on all the beautiful scenery around us.  What a sad thought to think of all the opportunities missed not just to live in the moment, but also to add texture and truth to our writing.

Maybe this week is a wake-up call.  Slow down.  Open your eyes and pay attention to the details.  Allow your gaze to wander.  Notice how the morning mist floats across the lake like an apparition.  Wonder about the woman sitting across the aisle from you on the subway.  Ask yourself why the man in the checkout ahead of you is buying only one pork chop and a pint of ice cream.  Listen to the rain hit the dry corn leaves or catalog the scents and sounds of the raucous city outside your window.  Take it all in.  Write it all down.  Treasure it.

“Who wants to become a writer?  And why? Because it’s the answer to everything…it’s the streaming reason for living.  To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life even if it’s a cactus.”

— Enid Bagnold

Without trying to sound too cliche, I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce myself.  My name is Kristin Tenor and I consider myself a novice writer like many others who may follow this blog, even though I’ve been writing in some form or another most of my life.

My love affair with books and stories began at an early age.  I remember spending time alone in my bedroom, scrawling stories on scraps of loose-leaf and binding them together with leftover yarn from my mother’s stash.  One of those stories was titled “Marvin Messes Up,” about a boy who is sent to the grocery store by his mother.  She asks him to bring home a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, but he becomes so side-tracked by everything else on his way he forgets to bring home the milk and bread and instead brings his mother everything else he finds between the store and home.  Sounds suspiciously like an old Sesame Street bit, doesn’t it?

As time passed, though, I found myself getting side-tracked like Marvin.  I spent most of my adolescence writing five paragraph themes and scribbling like mad in my journal about all the injustices of my small rural world.  Once high school graduation approached I was encouraged to do something “practical” with my life, so I went to business school.  Graduated cum laude with a degree in management from Marquette University, but left empty inside.

cactus2

I became a wife and a stay-at-home mother to two beautiful daughters who are now both married and have families of their own. Once our youngest entered elementary school, I decided to take a short story workshop offered through our local technical college. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the class was designed specifically for senior citizens.  When I arrived for the first class, a man named Paul greeted me at the door and asked if I was the new instructor.  I shook his hand and explained myself.  He then gave me a serious once over and asked where I’d gotten my beautiful face-lift.

Needless to say, I felt intimidated sitting in a classroom of octogenarians who were probably wondering why this young whippersnapper barged into their class.  But, they opened their arms to me.  As I listened to their stories, I realized it wasn’t too late.  I began to write my stories again and haven’t looked back since.

So here I am.  Maybe you have a similar story?

There have been many writers I’ve met who struggle to call themselves writers.  Many think they need to be published in the New York Times or write a bestseller in order to be taken seriously.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I firmly believe all one needs are openness, curiosity and a willingness to share with others what he/she truly cares about—and of course, to write.

We are writers.

We’ve been given the special gift of crafting words into understanding, although our missions may vary.  For some, there’s a need to make sense of this crazy world we live in. Others, it’s the joy that comes from telling a good story.  Or, perhaps, we simply want to leave a part of ourselves with future generations to come, so they can learn from our experience.

You are a writer just like me or Paul from the senior center or Ernest Hemingway.  We’re all travelers down the same road and I couldn’t be any happier than to be your companion on the journey.

Where has your writing journey taken you?  I’d love to hear from you.