Monday, February 15, 2010

Growing your story

With all the advice out there on how to organize plot lines, structure outlines, and revise first drafts, I have found very little that talks about how to think about your story.

Every advice I've ever read or received on how to outline or organize story material assumes I already have material stored up in my mind. It assumes I already have a mess that needs to be organized. But too often I skip the step that no one has ever told me to do: think.

Someone asked me recently if I had any ideas on how to move bare conceptions and single scenes forward into something like a story. I have a lot of what I call snippets or stubs of stories. A scene, a conversation, a witty and elegant description, or an idea for a unique character. These are all little tiny seeds of a story.

I find I need to plant those seeds by writing down what I have. But I have to let them grow on their own by just walking away from the keyboard. A snippet might remain a snippet for weeks or even months before it's grown enough in my mind. But during that time, my thoughts will return to it while I'm driving or waiting in line, and while I think about it, it just grows.

Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, once described being a writer as someone who sits around in their underwear and gets paid a dollar for doing so. Well, I don't sit around in my underwear, but I do take an awful lot of time to just think about my story. Do outlines and structures and arches and character profiles help? Yes. But not so much as to carry the entire burden of story-growing on their shoulders.

To rephrase the extended metaphor:

Plant the seed of a story by putting it on paper. Your mind is the soil. Let its roots grow deep and long before it pokes out over the surface., unprotected where anything might happen to it.

When it grows, encourage it to come up out of the dirt and reach for the sunlight. Add branch by branch, leaf by leaf, letting every aspect of it grow inside your mind until its ready to be put to paper.

Of course, even before all of this you must ask yourself what kind of tree do you want to plant? Is the purpose of your story to block wind? Farmers often use trees to shelter their crops from the wind. Are you writing your story to shelter other ideas from getting blown away?

Or perhaps you want to plant a tree for shade: Simple, relaxing, easy to take care of. Something that doesn't require a lot of effort to enjoy. Something that can be read easily. (Commercial or Mainstream fiction)

You could plant a tree for its fruit. Something that will directly feed the masses, or even just your own appetite. Something that is almost literally food for thought. (Literary works, etc.)

The story might need to be planted for use later on as lumber. I mean, wouldn't you love an author who wrote a book so rich and accessible that you could just go up to it with an ax and carry away solid ideas to use in your own life? (Self-help)

Or maybe you just want something aesthetically pleasing to make that everyday landscape perfect. (Slice of Life)

Do you want a tall tree or a short tree? A wide one, or a thin one? Do you have space restrictions like power lines, word count maximums, or even minimum word counts? Do you want a tree for its flowers, something thats beautiful for the season you are in right now, or that your readers are in, or that the country is in? (Political, current issues, etc.)

Or maybe you're planting an exotic tree, and hoping your green thumb will nurture it in an environment where it's not really meant to grow. Something that's completely outside its normal sphere. (Sci-Fi and Fantasy)

Or maybe you want to plant an Evergreen, something that won't change with the seasons, will always be a predictable height and shape, and has a pleasant smell. (? Ideas for what this would be?)

I could go on and on.

And yes, sometimes our stories do contract dutch elm disease and have to be cut down and killed. Sometimes they get struck by lightning and the entire growth structure of one limb of plot gets cut off and it changes the story forever. Sometimes they catch fire. Sometimes our entire forest of stories might catch fire. (This is very sad when it happens. I think it's called writer's block.)

Or maybe you're just not sure what your tree is because it changes from day to day. Maybe it looks more like its just going to be a bush or a weed.

In any case, I think the most important step in getting a story from conception to fruition is thought. Pure, long, hard and deep thought. It's okay to sit around in your house, (in your underwear if you must,) and just think as a part of the process.

I'm tempted to go into what happens during the different seasons to our forest of novel ideas, but I'll leave that up to you.

Metaphor of the Month Assignment: (Finally!)

Describe your current WIP (work in progress) in a metaphor like it's a tree. What are its aspects? Why are you growing it? In what stage of growth is it in?


My WIP is a willow tree. I'm not exactly sure why I'm growing it. It's really big, and its plot lines hang way down low to the ground so the reader can see how beautiful and magnificent it is. It drapes everywhere, offering accessibility to the very edge of its growth, the tips of the branches, where new things are always coming out. They're not way up high and hard to reach like other trees. I want my readers to be able to duck inside its canopy of branches for a little while and just enjoy its complexity, but not be alienated by it. I guess perhaps I'm growing it for aesthetic purposes. It's a beautiful tree, and it's unusual enough to be noticed in a front yard, but not so unusual as to be called exotic. I like it that way. It will draw attention to itself without making the reader feel like they are encountering something completely foreign.


  1. My WIP is a sturdy, new Oak. It started from an acorn of a idea, and has grown many branches throughout its conception. It has now three main characters, some solid secondary characters that constantly force me - the author - to be flexible with the changing seasons.

    Many times my newborn Oak had to weather doubt and misperception, but has sunk its roots deep into the ground of the plot idea as its branches intertwined for strength. My oak has a specific purpose to fulfill; a message of growth and human potential.

    While it is unique in its conception, my Oak offers warmth and stability and the knowledge that it is still a tree in the forest, surrounded and nurtured by others of it’s kind. It offers years of experience in its ongoing maturity, and wishes only to share its indomitable spirit with others. Though it has sired offspring (2 sequels), it still has not enticed a Dryad (Agent) to nurture it and spread the acorns of its wisdom into the wider world.

    My Oak is patient, and enduring, and knows one day a Dryad will hear its lonesome call and wish to be joined in mutual purpose.