Sunday, September 19, 2010

In September

In September, a teacher’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of how to get a point across. What I teach is a how-to of magazine writing, which boils down to story – what is it? how do we create it?

Most writers, I think, would love it if divine intervention played a large part but alas, for most of us that just doesn’t happen. What mostly occurs is some design and a lot of sawing and hammering.

A story idea is like an architect’s working drawings: are you making a hospital or a house, a stucco mansion or board-and-batten cottage? In other words, a novel, a poem or a magazine profile? Will it have a grand entrance or a tiny archway leading to an atrium?

Sentences are the lumber that we mill and cut to fit with other clauses and phrases. Depending on the site and the ultimate users, the wood might be spruce or bamboo or it might not be wood at all – bricks and stone work, too. Active verbs are the guns that drive events like nails into a two-by-four, connecting it to another piece of the structure.

And along with the materials and tools, there are conventions in building as there are in writing – and it’s up to each carpenter or writer to decide whether the rules are useful for her or his project.

Does this house need studs every 16 inches, like all the other houses in the neighbourhood, or would it be fun to put them every six – or 60 – inches instead? What does the house (or the carpenter) gain or lose by doing that? If a writer flouts convention by skipping the quotation marks or ending the yarn before resolving the crisis, what’s the benefit and the cost?

If the framework of a story isn’t sturdy enough, it’ll collapse sooner rather than later, just like a house. If a tale promises to be an Aztec pyramid but there’s a revolving glass entry, a reader won’t know whether to trust the writer and might move along to the next place, where the oak door at least matches the Tudor facade.

Stories enchant readers and listeners, but storytelling is not magic. It’s construction.

But every so often, the lucky writer feels a tingle and surge…


  1. PERFECT! I need this, this week.....a bit of inspiration and a reminder to never keep my construction tools too far away.......Lisa

  2. You never know when that cordless drill will come in handy.

    And of course, the muse only shows up (at my house, anyway) when my behind is in the chair.

  3. Sawing and hammering away as we speak. Great blog, Rachel!

  4. I've been trying to figure out a way to fit in that classic construction adage: Measure twice, cut once.
    Somehow, it doesn't seem to work, though. Maybe the construction of writing needs all those Oops offcuts.