Some people call it luck. Others will say I’m blessed. But the truth is, I had a chancy start in life. My options, however, improved when I landed in a place, at a time, in the care of a woman who had an intimate relationship with luck and his close relative, chance. “luck will lift your dreams,” Grandma Neetha would say. “Chance is indifferent to them.” How she was able to fine-tune the difference between these road signs, as she called them, I never understood. But one of these possibilities was the reason I started my life with her. It was,however, pure luck when I met Billy and we began our life-long friendship.
When we open a book and begin to read, our emotions immediately engage with the words, characters and settings. These beginnings are reminders of past experiences, hopes, daydreams, even old fears. They provide vivid mental pictures.
As writers, we’re often told to provide a hook for the readers that will keep them reading. This started me thinking about books that ‘hooked’ me at the very beginning. One such book is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It was published decades ago, but continues to show up among readers’ favorites, certainly one of mine.
The very first word in the book is the name of the main character, Okonkwo. Over the first three paragraphs we learn he is a man of power and influence in his village, with a large compound comprising three wives and many children. With the author’s words a picture of him begins to emerge in our minds of a tall muscular man with attitude. Briefly we learn he has a beef with his father, even though, at this point, we don’t know the reason, but the author has aroused our interest. We want to know more. In these paragraphs we also begin to see the nature of Okonkwo’s culture which adds to our interest in his story.
As I tell my story I have a picture of the character in my head. I see him move about his home or job or making a point during a conversation with a friend. I melt at his smile and feel his displeasure. But, is my reader seeing him as I do? Does the reader see his closely cut hair? His coffee-brown color? How the color of his eyes changes when he makes love? This is a huge undertaking. Huge. How can I best achieve this goal?
Here are a few tools I use.
(1) When I first call up a character, I name him or her. Then I begin to see more of that person.
(2) I know at the very beginning that person’s role in the story, even though the character’s actions may surprise me as the story unfolds.
(3) Then I am careful to make sure the character speaks and acts appropriately according to who he is. A gentle man or an ordinary guy trying to make his way in the world or a man with three sisters probably would never call a woman a ‘bitch.’ A mother would not ‘plop’ her two-month-old infant on the sofa. A character who is vulnerable or easily hurt may be described as ‘watchful’: waiting for the ‘rejection’ to follow what he considers ‘conditional praise’. A boy who has not seen his mother for months, comes home from school still ‘hopeful’, but ‘sad’.
(4)When fleshing out your character’s physical description, Did someone tell him he is ‘tall like his father.’ When your character is meeting someone for the first time, she describes herself as ‘5″2′, about 120 pounds’.
(5) Is there one word that describes your character? Is he suspicious, introverted, likable, sneaky or reliable?
Since beginning my literary career, it has become more difficult to just sit and enjoy a book with a box of cheezits or bowl of nuts. I, now, constantly examine the techniques authors use in telling their stories: character development, time passage, plot development, scene description, etc. After reading Toni Morrison’s JAZZ for the third time, I discovered more of her brilliance.
The technique she uses to capture the essence of her main character at the very beginning of the story is by having a storyteller describe, to someone, the character’s actions (story within a story). These actions reveal the character’s state of mind. When we meet Violet, described running down snow-swept Lenox Avenue we immediately know her location (Harlem). This knowledge gives way to a set of emotions about Harlem during the Jazz-age (black people up from the south struggling to make a new start). Through the storyteller’s explanation we understand Violet is hurt by her husband’s infidelity with a younger woman who he subsequently shot and killed. Violet sought revenge by going to the girl’s funeral, attempting to stab her dead face, but is thrown out of the church, hence she runs home. As further evidence of her highly emotional state, the storyteller reveals, once home, she set free her pet birds including a parrot who could talk and say , I love you. This is another clue to her deep hurt. She now turns on a creature who did return her love.
In the first four paragraphs we’re introduced to (1) an emotionally unstable (2) fifty-year-old woman (3) whose husband has killed his mistress. We know (4) where she lives and that she (5) had pet birds that she let go. We know these things about her because someone who saw her running was juggling another person’s memory. And Violet hasn’t uttered a single word. She speaks through another’s mouth and eyes.
How’s that writing project going? You remember, the one you resolved to begin: the essay, poem, song, novel, biography, picture book. Are you following your plan? Do you even have a plan?
I cannot overstate the importance of planning. A plan tells the story of your goal. Each step of the plan is a chapter filled with purpose and action. A well-prepared plan lights the way to your goal, step by step. It fosters development of necessary skills and habits. Your plan must be tight, legal, ethical and comport with your belief system and societal standards. Lax planning gives you an out when times get tough.
With a plan you eliminate guessing and confusion. First be clear about the reasons you adopted the goal. If you are ambivalent about your motives, you’ll not be motivated to persevere through the challenges. Make your plan flexible, because as you execute each step you’re poised to see additional opportunities or you may discover an unnecessary step that can be omitted.
Your plan can’t exist only in your head. Write it out and you can refer to it anytime. A written plan reveals patterns that help and patterns that are barriers to forward movement.
A valid plan is grounded by credible assumptions. These assumptions act like the concrete blocks that form the foundation of a building. Weak assumptions cannot support your efforts for goal fulfillment. The assumptions you rely on are effective only if they are undergirded with facts that reflect your life’s purpose and value system.
Think of your plan as a road map that takes you from starting point to destination. Imagine, you decide to drive from West Virginia to Oregon. You get on the nearest interstate not knowing whether it runs east to west or north to south. You have a fifty/fifty chance of reaching your destination. You may never reach Oregon. So it is with your writing project. Without a plan, success of your goal is elusive and will forever remain beyond your grasp.
What do you think?
We’re living in complex times when we can no longer depend on historical narratives to guide us safely through the varying currents of life. The boundaries that define our systems of knowledge acquisition, work, family relationships, financial stability, the value of diverse opinions, faith and trust in our institutions and government, to cite a few, are fraying. The element of unpredictability is gaining prominence over traditionally reliable methods of acquiring information. Having access to information is the hallmark of an informed citizenry. Even the value of public education is now up for debate. Will universal free education disappear?
The vast clout of traditional media, be it print, pictorial, or oral is today, often tarred with villainous intent to deceive, ineffective agency or ambiguity, depending on one’s point of view. But the communities we create on social media platforms (blogs, Facebook, Instagram etc.) are also purveyors of important information not always available in traditional media because of costs or lack of interest. When we post on social media we’re boldly providing current information and opinions important to our communities that they can’t get elsewhere. But, we must remain alert for diatribes putting forth extreme slants, ambiguous view points and lies.
Remember online platforms are opportunities that disseminate additional or corrective information. These media outlets are as important and necessary as the small local newspapers started generations ago by visionaries to inform their readers (Miami Times, Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender etc.). So, as we prepare to post pictures, stories, poems, opinions, mini essays, interesting ideas, maps, businesses we like and travel recommendations, remember our readers are looking for information. Online media posters are reporters.