Building The Story Concept

I am reading a new book on writing called Story Engineering – Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks.  Who knew writing was such serious stuff?  Even the title is intimidating.  Still, yours truly decided to brandish her reading glasses, brave the wilds, and crack open the cover of the book.

Story Engineering by Larry BrooksWowser! The writing actually made sense.  I have to admit I’m only to page 46, but this is great fun for me.  I’m working on the first competency, called “concept.”  Here I always thought the writer was supposed to sit on the couch in a thoughtful position until others heard the creative sounds of snoring, then jump up and say “Eureka!” with the next story idea fully formed in his or her head.

Nope. Mr. Brooks nicely broke down that process into things like ideas, concepts, and premises.  These things all bundled together form a meaning or theme for a book.  How cool is that?

In short, a concept is constructed by taking an idea and playing what if games with it.  So, if your idea was to write about pigeons (roll with me here, will you?), then the concept starts asking things like:

  • What if pigeons became so populous in London that no one could see the sky any more? Not that people in London have any reason to look up anyway; it’s almost always raining there.  But still.
  • What if a pigeon started pooping gold nuggets? Hard on the head, but I’d keep that bird.
  • What if a gold-pooping pigeon lived in London amongst a population of pigeons that were being decimated because there were too many of them everywhere?

Forgive me. It’s 6:30 in the morning, and I have no idea where my creativity is. But you get the point (and yes, if you want to play with this golden pigeon idea/concept, knock yourself out).

One more important element of the great concept, is character. According to Story Engineering, a tale needs a “conceptual delivery strategy” to show us the truth in our stories via a character or set of characters that … “make the journey more personal and visceral, as opposed to journalistic.”

It’s easy to say “Say no to drugs,” as Nancy Regan showed us in the mid ’80s, but show us a person who learns that lesson through experience, and we have a great delivery system for a concept, like “what if a real estate salesman, with career and marriage problems, turns to cocaine use for his solution?” The 1983 movie starring Dennis Weaver became “Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction.”

Now, a concept is not a full-blown plot ready to throw down on a page, but only “a window into that plot.”  It’s kind of like a guide post.  It this or that a good story idea? I don’t know. What’s your concept? Is the concept original? Gee, how many stories are there with gold-pooping pigeons escaping a slaughter-house in London? Is the concept’s delivery system (character/s) strong? Maybe there is an old carrier-pigeon owner who loves the birds and wants to help a select few escape the slaughter.  What will he gain by befriending the gold-pooping pigeon? What will his girlfriend say? What is their story and what will they learn?

By now, I’ve forgotten that I’m working on the notion of concept because I’m too busy playing with images of pigeons and curiosity about the “sky rats” as a friend of mine calls them.  Can’t wait to read more in this book.

Meanwhile, it’s your turn. Come up with the most unlikely subject (idea) you can think of.  Write down the word or phrase in the middle of a blank sheet of paper.  There’s your “idea.” Then write as many “what if” questions as you can around that word. Develop a premise by popping a character into the mix. Mostly, have a fun and creative day.

A Tail’s End

It all started with the discovery of small bits of blood on my walls.

Hmm. How did that get there? Guess somebody in our house had an ow-ie. For once we had no drama to go with it. I counted my lucky stars, wiped up the dots, and went on with life.

Then came a little chewing. Prophet has always chews on himself–guess that’s entertaining for a dog riddled with allergies. We’ll be watching television and he starts in–chew, chew, chew, lick, lick, lick. That sound–the click, click of teeth on fur, and slurpy, desperate noises as his tongue laps up his shedding–that sound is indelibly burned into my memory banks. Hollywood should come record my dog doing this. Add a few dog licking sounds to any torture scene and you have real entertainment–rated Y for yucky.

“Stop that!” I shouted with all the love in my heart. Prophet got up and walked away. More dots. Hmm.

Finally, I caught him in the act. Proph was actually chewing the tip of his tail! And, he managed to make it bleed. Oh happy day. Add a trip to the vet before sending him off to PetSmart so my good guy and I could enjoy a weekend away. I took him in.

Sure enough, a hundred and some dollars and a funky looking band-aid later, we had a dog with an infection on his tail and a scramble for a pet-sitter for the weekend. Petsmart doesn’t take in pets with band aids. Who knew?

A week or two later, and all the antibiotics used up, we went back to the vet for the bandage removal. The dog made more fuss getting the thing off than on.

“I’m not sure this is a good sign,” said the vet. “He shouldn’t be in pain any more.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “I love my dog, but he’s a bit of a drama queen. Perhaps the vet tech didn’t say pretty please when she took his tail in hand?”

We did an X-ray. Two or three bones up there was a little crack. Hairline. I could hardly see it. Back on went the band-aid. I wasn’t going to even consider amputating the tail as she suggested.  People heal pretty quickly from broken bones to arms and legs. Surely, Proph’s tail should be better in no time.

Guess the healing angels didn’t hear me. With the anti-biotic used up, Prophet became more and more aware of his broken tail, and he ripped off the second band-aid. Back to the vet for a new one–$37 for an empty syringe and self-adhesive ace wrap.

We had company that night. Prophet was so excited. Our friends brought their dog along. No matter how that other dog tried to set a good example–sitting quietly, staring at his owner with a please-can-we-go-home-now look, laying on his bed with the resignation only a dog can project–Prophet wasn’t buying it.

As the volume of Proph’s barking increased and picking up of shoes and other inappropriate objects became a hopeless invitation to play, I kept wondering where my well-behaved middle-aged dog had gone, and who was this exuberant little kid before me? Into the kennel he had to go. At last he settled down and we could enjoy our company.

A dog's band aid

Remnants of a tail wrap, number four–or was that five?

Later, we let Proph out, but the band-aid stayed behind. Goodness! No way were we going to go to an emergency vet to have the thing put back on. Home remedy time. We wrapped up the tail–two, three, four more times in the next day or two.

At last my guy got out the ever-powerful duct tape and wrapped that tail so that it would take a nuclear explosion to get it off. Proph slouched and sagged around a lot, but the band-aid stayed on.

A couple of days later we took the wrap off to change it. But the happy little tail end had turned purple. I cleaned it and the dog didn’t flinch, but he licked open a wound with just one or two swipes of the tongue. Back to the vet.

The tail end comes off

A little shorter, but still a cute tail, don’t you think?

“It’s dead,” she said. “No, it’s hard to wrap a tail too tight. You’ve done what you could.”

Times like these, I think of all the Reader’s Digest articles I’ve read where homeowners perform miracles with creatures that no vet will touch. Love, band aids and voila! Healthy pets and wild critters emerge from these times.  Not so with poor Proph.

We took him

in one more time. Snip, snip and five inches of tail were gone. But gone is the chewing as well. He’s smiling again, even from within the “collar of shame.”

Prophet in the collar of shame

Peek-a-boo! I’ll be busting outta this contraption any day. Watch out, tail!

Oh! That collar? It’s on because when the vet took the operation band-aid off, Prophet managed to lick off two stitches  while we were in the reception area making the next appointment!  His tail had been healing nicely. It’s back in a band-aid. Maybe next week we’ll get back to normal.

Until then, lick, lick, lick will be ever in my brain next to the wree, wree, wree of the shower scene from Psycho.

Active Reading–A New Adventure

Have you ever stumbled across a treasure? I mean something that gets you really excited? Maybe you saw a twenty-dollar bill laying on the ground, just like a friend of mine. Or perhaps you found that treasured necklace you thought had been lost forever. Whatever it was, you probably felt a burst of euphoric energy that kept you smiling from time to time throughout your day.

I had a similar experience. As part of my investigation into illiteracy in Colorado, I’ve had to review my own reading habits, which, to be honest, aren’t impressive at all. I am a word-by-word reader, and very slow. Added to that, I no longer remember most of what I read, and quoting from a favorite book (other than Dr. Seuss of course) seems impossible.

Reading And Notes

Capture what you read.

Then, the other day, I stumbled across my daughter’s old copy of The Little, Brown Handbook by H.Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron. Treasure found! My daughter used this book in high school, and left it behind when I showed enthusiasm for it so long ago. Since then, I’ve dipped into its 836 pages when I’ve had a specific grammar or punctuation question, but little else.

Last week I began to read the Introduction thinking that if I dove into a few pages a day, I could finish the obligation in, say, a year. But a funny thing happened. The intro referred me to thoughts on writing while reading–taking notes.  So I flipped to pages 7-8 and pages 37-38 for ideas on how to take notes.  From there I skipped to a book called “The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists”by Andrew McAleer, with advice from several published authors on a variety of subjects. I took my new-found note taking skills out for a test drive.

Since, I’ve flipped back and forth, not truly reading from page one to the end, yet getting more out of the experience than ever before. I have ideas for promoting my books mixing with ways to read better, more critically (which means, according to the Little Brown Handbook, “skeptical,””exacting,””creative”), and deeply. Speed reading doesn’t seem so important when reading to have stronger critical skills. Words are becoming a joy again. In short I love it, mixing reading with writing at the same time.

You’re probably wondering where I was throughout college.  Kids there take notes while reading all the time. I remember doing so too. The thing was, I’d last been taught how to take notes while reading in grammar school, so note-taking in college was a chore instead of a helpful tool. And for me, any chore worth naming is one worth avoiding, procrastinating about or otherwise neglecting to do.

Forgive me if this post on taking notes while reading seems too elemental for you. I’m just very excited about it. I have started a reading journal, and may transfer some of the notes I take into a Word document at some point, but for now, I love the physical aspect of taking notes.

So, how does this note taking method work?  I simply draw a line down the middle of a page. On the left, I can paraphrase what the author says, or quote directly. On the right side I put down anything that comes to mind. Questions, skepticism, personal experiences that relate, or even other conclusions. It’s that simple.  In the past I have tried to use the outline method of note taking, getting halfway through only to start scribbling in margins and at angles because I missed a direct connection. I’ve also used mind-mapping, but have struggled to find enough room to write whole paragraphs of thought. I like the two columns because there is space for “the experts,” and there is a lot of room for me. I ignore the lines on the right side and just draw arrows to the thoughts that I’m reflecting upon.

Will this method of learning work forever? Maybe, maybe not. I continue to try to outline when I can. And mind-mapping has its place. But taking notes while I read? I like this two column way well.

Another thing. I underline a lot in my books.  Just never thought to write a lot of notes in the margins of good books. Now, I know I can jot a few words to question and explore a work like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 without having to think of myself as a criminal of book publishing.  I can take those notes and underlines and put them into my reading journal to put next to other quotes and question how they compare, which I like better, which words I’d defend in debate and why.

This active reading is so exciting to me.  It reminds me why I buy some books instead of always checking them out of the library.  But it shows me that books I cannot mark up can be captured in a short way by using a reading journal. And at last, I know how to keep a reading journal so that thoughts and experiences in reading aren’t lost in my foggy old brain.

What about you? How do you interact with your reading beyond ingesting the words of books, magazines, and news media? If you see a particularly fascinating Facebook post, how do you make it a part of who you are? How will you remember it five years from now?