Tag Archives: storytelling

Using childhood memories to combat writer’s block

23 Sep

The podcast Grammar Girl had a good episode 292 about overcoming writer’s block, written by Roy Peter Clark, who teaches at the Poynter Institute. Especially "Lower your standards, raise them later," seems to apply to me. I get bogged down by how awesome my story is going to be. It paralysis the creative output, paraphrased from Mignon Fogarty narrating in the podcast.

First of all let me apologize for not posting for so long. I was preoccupied with personal fitness, which had gone down to an all-time low. Getting back into shape (which I’m still busy with) took all my attention, but now I’ve dialed down the intensity a bit, I have energy (and time) to resume writing.

Now about lowering your standards at the beginning. This very post you’re reading started with a few sentences written with a ballpoint pen on a piece of paper. Then I didn’t use a fancy text editor, but just what came with the OS (TextEdit on Mac OS X).

To help me with the formatting a bit, I used Marked by Brett Terpstra. It accepts markdown, as suggested by John Gruber of Daring Fireball. It also accepts an "improved" version of markdown, called multimarkdown, as developed and maintained by Fletcher Penney. Both methods use plain text files without special formatting (like RTF). The text and the formatting of the text are both readable, in characters you type on a keyboard, not by selecting text and applying style to it, as you would do in a word processor. Special tools exist to translate these plain text files into publishable formats, like HTML. You only need to write one source file to have multiple publication formats.

But never mind that, though. Use whatever tools work best for you. The point I wanted to make is that I used the simplest of tools, as lo-fi as possible, to lower my expectations and simply write instead of worrying about how it looks.

As useful simple and unpretentious tools may be for the writer, he or she still has to walk the walk. The basics of writing haven’t really changed in the last few hundred years. You need to come up with an idea that makes you want to work hard at something that (hopefully) will grab the reader’s attention.

Now as a writer you can only entice a reader to keep on reading. So how about that? How do you even begin to work on that part of the writing process? How do you get people to read what you write, especially if those people don’t know you personally?

Well, as an experiment, I went over some of my fondest childhood memories related to reading books. My reasoning was that if I can capture this feeling of fondness, use it for writing, surely some of it will be picked up by the reader. Maybe he or she will think: "Wow, this is good stuff! I need to read more of this!" If that’s the case: yay!

As a kid, I really enjoyed reading C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" (in Dutch translation), which my mother lent from the local library when I had the flu and high fever (41 C, 106 F). I could only read a few pages at a time before I feel asleep from exhaustion, tears to my eyes. I’m not sure if those tears were from exhaustion (fever) or excitement (story). I guess a bit of both. It made the pain in my bones feel somewhat bearable and gave me something positive to think about when I was awake.

Sometimes your imagination can be sparked by something else than a book. I have fond memories of watching tropical fish in a fish tank. The sight made me imagine another world from my own, completely alien, but real. Real to me at least, at that moment. I can’t remember the specifics, though, because I didn’t write them down.

I think it is this mindset of a young child wondering about the world you should be after, not indulging into some kind of nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, other than it isn’t very productive for writing. You want the feeling, the mindset, not the accompanying train of thoughts of how things were better when you were young.

You want a sense of wondering, of seeing something for the first time, and wanting to explore it with a sense of discovery. In this mindset you could write the stars in the Heavens, if you wanted, and convey your deepest, most inner feelings to your readers (as you should).

Most likely, though, your very first draft will not accomplish the latter. You need to craft your story first before you can do that. However, if you don’t capture the description of your initial feelings, when things are still fresh in your mind and haven’t been tested and prodded by the story-writing process, you can never blossom as a storyteller. You need to be always on the ready. There’s no such thing as a part-time creative. It’s a full-time commitment, because new ideas can come to you at any moment and you need to capture them, then and there.

With the above in mind, I think one should use this child-like mindset for a first draft only, to get the rough emotions on paper, in words (and in the case of comics, in words and pictures). It’s the longing for something awesome, for something new and exciting, that you want to put in the reader’s mind. I didn’t do that with my childhood fish tank experience, but, as an adult and aspiring writer now, I should apply discipline to my craft if I want to be more than just another hack who only does first drafts.

You may now think I’m harping on it too much, like a religious zealot and you may be right. I can get carried away a bit by new insights. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here for you more experienced writers. Experienced as a writer, a fiction writer, I am not. So this hopefully explains why I’m stating the obvious, to some of you at least.

I suppose in the second, third, etc. draft you start to use your skill as a writer, reorganizing events. You want to take the reader by the hand and gently lead them through your world, using a plot, a sequence of events, to tell them what this world is about. You, the writer, are not in that picture, not for them and not even for yourself. It should be all about the experience, the experience you had and want to share to others.

After all, isn’t that what fictional storytelling is all about, sharing sublime experiences?

Keep writing!


31 Jul

I’m trying to get better at storytelling, so I’m looking for little signs about the craft. Hurray for podcasts!

After listening to Mur Lafferty’s interview with Tracy Hickman on I should be writing, Hickman did an offhand remark about story and realism, that story is how the world should be, not how it is (or what I thought, could be).

Then, after listening to Comic Book Outsiders, with special co-host Stacey Whittle and host Steve Aryan, where they talked about the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, there was another offhand remark. If you go from one book to the other, some time has passed and while reading the book you get a hint of what has happened, off camera, so to speak.

It was a subtle hint to write another blog post, before all of this fades away in oblivion. I just can’t keep all of this in my brain. I need to dump it onto my blog for later reference. So here it is.

A story is an amped up anecdote

Compared to anecdotes told among friends, a written story should be amplified for dramatic effect. Personal anecdotes are only interesting for those who know the storyteller intimately and can related to him or her. If you are writing for a wider audience than your friends and family, you need to step outside the bubble of personal life experiences. You need to stylize what you tell, so it will be more accessible for people who don’t know you. They can use their own life experiences to fill in the blanks you left in your story on purpose.

This means you can’t simply let the words flow from your mind to your keyboard, but you have to craft your story. What you can assume known amongst your friends (and if not, they can ask while you are doing the telling) has to be conveyed to a reader somehow. However, if you merely state the facts, most readers will get bored, because facts have little emotional impact, do little to engage. It’s all about packaging the facts that are required to understand the story. Therein lies the craft of fictional storytelling.

So you don’t want to bullet point facts. You may assume anyone above the age of six has some level of storytelling ability and you can and should make use of that ability. Hence you can assume some level of sophistication when it comes to relaying story facts in imaginative and novel ways.

That’s as far as I dare to go. Nuggets of knowledge about the craft come in little chunks. I suppose this is because most authors have little to no insight in their creative process, at least at a level that is useful for novice writers. They can tell you how they write, which could be totally different from how you best write.

One thing is certain, though. You learn how to write by actually writing, not by merely thinking about writing. Even so, you should do so with the intent to entertain your reader, to grab his or her attention, while (and hopefully beyond) reading your story.

Tell it in your own words

What does that actually mean, “in your own words?” To me it means that you interpret the story, give a spin of your own. If it’s a factual story (an anecdote), the amount of imagination you will put into it will be low. However, if it’s a fictional story, you can put as much imagination into a story as you want.

Now I have ventured out into unknown territory, where I have no authority (at least not yet). I feel lost and unsure of myself. I know I’m not yet ready to write stories that are worth publishing.

This is actually a good thing. How many novice writers are sure they are about to write the next bestseller, while they’re clearly not ready? They couldn’t write themselves out of a paper bag.

So there seems to be more to storytelling than merely retelling in your own words. I’m puzzled, at a loss. What am I to do next?


Yes, I’m here, but I’m still not sure what’s next.

I promise I will tell you once I know more.

*Sign of presence, answered with the same word by anyone present.

Writing assignments

22 May


Here is a writing assignment I gave myself. It’s written in the iPad app Note Taker HD, by Software Garden Inc., the software company of Dan Bricklin. It is a deep application, which hides its complexity until you need it and has lots of help to make it easy to get to understand the functionality. I think it’s excellent for brain dumping, because you have as few constraints as possible. It requires that you have a somewhat legible handwriting, though. It doesn’t do handwriting recognition (which doesn’t really work all too well anyway).

About the writing assignment. Just like you should draw every day, as a cartoonist, you should write stories every day, or write on a story every day. I’m going to try and replicate the daily sketches in writing, by writing short stories of around 300 words. I’m not sure if I can write a flash fiction story every day, but I guess I can work on it every day, so I have a finished story by the end of the week.

I don’t think I’ll be doing the actual writing in Note Taker HD. For that I have a much better app, called iA Writer, by Information Architects, Inc. It has some good functionality for writing.

Storytelling, what is that?

28 Nov

Recently I heard a podcast episode of Tech Nation by Moira Gunn and David Ewing Ducan, called Evolution of Overconfidence. The discussion was about how having a moderate degree of overconfidence has shaped our evolution as human beings. This got me to thinking about what storytelling actually is. I have struggled with the concept of storytelling and why it is so important. I think I have found some pieces of the puzzle for you.

We humans have build a reputation of a species which gets into trouble quite easily, and has a hard time getting out of there. Someone with a more cautious disposition would never rush into dangerous situations as some human individuals seem to do. It is not that we don’t see the danger, but we defy it, even look for places where danger lurks. We praise our heroes, people who found themselves in dangerous situations and had to deal with it.

So what has that all to do with storytelling, you might think. Well, not everyone is as brave as some. The world is actually a very dangerous place to be in. It kills people all the time, and we don’t want to die, especially if dying can be prevented. Even the most cranky curmudgeon has at least some willingness to hear about how to survive certain dangers. Of course, there are more ways to die than just physical death.

Suppose there exists some unknown danger. It may be that a few individuals have faced this danger, and a couple of them have successfully dealt with it. They might be very willing to share their accounts of what happened, and it might entertain a few of their friends. If, however, there is a storyteller among their friends, who collects the accounts and transforms those into a single story with mythical proportions, the original accounts might reach more people. The story will not be as true to the facts as the original material, but the gist of conquering a danger and how it was done (in general terms) is still intact.

Seen in that perspective storytelling becomes something to take away fears and doubts that live in people’s minds. Everyone has had bad experiences, but a good story will explain how to deal with a bad situation, make you more confident to face danger, even if it is not as heroic as the hero in the story.

The point I want to make here is that stories help people to cope with danger and overcome it. There is no doubt in my mind that this character trait of sharing stories is as old as humanity, and in some ways has altered the course of human evolution, making humans the most successful of the big animals on this planet.

And don’t think we didn’t have competition. From what we know now, Homo Sapiens sapiens wasn’t the strongest of the bunch, or even had the largest brain. I just think we got lucky and managed to survive a (hypothetical) near-extinction by believing the future will be better for our children, and our children’s children. Those who didn’t, didn’t leave any offspring.

Storytelling is one of the reasons why we humans still move around, against all odds. At least, that is what I think. If you think that’s hogwash, please share by commenting. I’d love to read your side of the story.

That is all.