Late last night I finished reading the novel, Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. It was better than amazing and it inspired me to get on the ball and write about something I teach to all my writing students, which is this: The way we approach the writing of a story is the same way we approach our lives. And I don’t just mean working on a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I feel like most people think of life has a series of big pictures with a lot of little pictures and occurrences along the way. Maybe your big picture extends no more than getting through one school year at a time (don’t let anyone ever tell you that is as easy as it sounds), or it could be a bit bigger and maybe you group your years at one school into a big picture. Some kids I have known (though not many) have an idea of what they want to do as an adult or even go through periods of changing their minds about it, but they are still seeing the path to adulthood or actual adulthood as the big picture. Regardless of where you are in your big picture, it is there nonetheless. A writer sees this as the plot with a setting and some known characters. Once the story has begun though, the setting and characters are apt to change because just like a character, you grow and change and new things happen and people come and go, sometimes when you least expect it. Stories and lives have a lot of inevitable occurrences no matter who you think is in charge – you in your life or the writer of a story.
As a writer, I hear over and over again, that the story – aka big picture – starts with a day that is different. As a kid, you have a never-ending supply of those! It could be a move, a new sibling, a new grade or school, or even something unexpected like a new friend or an accident with an outcome that is long enough to be a story of its own. The interesting thing about a day that is different in real life is that sometimes we realize it is one of those days and sometimes we don’t. That can be as exciting or as frustrating as whether or not we even understand how the story will unfold. The story is instigated by an event and moves forward through our decisions that follow.
I have heard Mo Willems speak a couple of times and I love his thought on choosing what to write. He said, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you want to know and spend your story figuring it out. Otherwise you are just regurgitating.” Hearing this made me feel more freedom in choosing what to write than anything else I have ever heard. It also gave me more peace of mind as a person making choices in my life. It changed the pressure I put on myself to anticipate what is going to happen next and let me focus more on how things in my life were unfolding. In the end, I feel like I am more focused on the big picture in both my life and my writing.
If you have been struggling with how to start a story, think of it like your life. You won’t sit there and wait for something to happen. You go and do something and see where it takes you. Try thinking about your character’s big picture and what kinds of things will he/she do? Maybe you have an idea for a day that is different and you want to write to see how it will all pan out. Maybe you’re a planner and you think of the end game and want to back track to see how you got there. (This can be tricky though because a lot of times the story ends up feeling forced. Remember this is just a way to get started. Don’t be afraid to let your story unfold naturally. After all, plans don’t always turn out the way you expect and that is part of the excitement!) Or maybe you have a question about something you’ve read and if you take a chance and write it down, maybe a character with something to say will start to offer some ideas.
A great example of a story that grabs your attention and gets you involved in a character’s big picture is the book Okay for Now. Doug Swieteck moves to a new town and brings a whole lot of “baggage” with him. He didn’t see this change coming and the story of how he works through the struggles of having to bring his problems with him has it’s own correlation to life in the form of the story in some art that he comes across in the last place he ever expected to be…a library. Gary D. Schmidt does a wonderful job of jumping right in and letting us tag along as Doug’s life unfolds. It is a great example of what I’m talking about here.
Whatever you choose to do, the important thing is to put your words on the page and see where they take you!