Creating Stories with Child-like Wonder and Delight

Sing like you know the words, dance like no one’s watching, and love like it’s never going to hurt. — Unknown

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 Christmas always makes me feel like a kid again. It’s that time of year when I realize that I really am a kid at heart. I love the decorations, the music, the lights and especially the gift-giving.

It’s especially joyful when I watch children. I see their eyes grow wide with wonder and delight at each new experience, from sitting on Santa’s lap to seeing brightly wrapped presents under the tree. Everywhere they look, they see something fun and interesting to explore.

I call this “Christmas delight.”

Children experience the same delight through the things they create, whether it’s a drawing, a poem or a dance. They make things up as they go along, and they don’t worry about editorial guidelines and rules. They just do what they feel in their heart. They only know how to express themselves, to laugh, to have fun, to delight in their own creativity.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all experience this same wonder and delight with our writing?

A recent essay on Brevity’s Nonfiction blog got me thinking about our capacity as writers to delight in our own creativity. The author, L. Roger Owens, described his experience when he lost the joy of writing. Even as he struggled with writer’s block, he admired the unabashed joy his daughter expressed in her own creativity. She proudly read her stories out loud to a roomful of strangers. She spoke enthusiastically about plot points and character motivations. She delighted in her original turns of phrases. Things Owens wasn’t able to do with his own writing.

For Owens, repeated rejections and strict editorial guidelines squashed his creativity. A lack of interest in topics he was assigned to write about through his job killed his enthusiasm too.

Why are we able to experience this delight of creating as children, but lose it as adults?

Whatever we create as adults seems more open to scrutiny, not just our own, but that of editors, publishers and our peers. What we write seemed unique at first but now seems mundane and boring. Too many rejections and negative feedback weighs us down. We worry more about pleasing others than ourselves. All that negative input kills our enthusiasm, our joy.  

It may seem that the child-like wonder and delight for writing is lost forever. But it’s possible to reclaim it. Here’s how:

1. Pretend you are a child again. Do you remember how you felt when you finished writing a story? Did you take pride in your creation? View your writing as a child would. Children have no knowledge of editor’s rules or expert writing advice, so they are not worried about how people might react. They write for themselves, for the pure joy of creating. Perhaps we can learn from children to live in the moment and enjoy the process of creation.

2. Give yourself permission to fall in love with your work. It’s okay to appreciate turns of phrases, story ideas, plot lines, characters, and witty dialogue. So what that it may never be published, that it might land on the cutting room floor at your editor’s office. Even if you don’t use the material, keep it anyway. Create a file of writing that you review periodically to remind yourself that you are capable of writing enjoyable stories, even if they are never published.
 
3. Read your work out loud. It doesn’t have to be a large auditorium. Whether it’s an audience of one or ten, it doesn’t matter. Getting up to read your work takes courage and shows pride in your writing. When you read it out loud, even if it’s a first draft, you may find it isn’t nearly as bad as you think.

4. Don’t take your writing too seriously. Remember that writing is just one aspect of your life, not the only thing. “Writers are entertainers,” writes author Barbara O’Neal in Writer Unboxed blog. “We’re supposed to have fun. If you’re not, it’s probably time to find something else to do for a while.”

5. Allow yourself time to play. Take a break from writing and do something else, advises  O’Neal. Indulge in a favorite hobby, visit a museum, or go for a hike. Bring a small notebook with you and jot down any details you notice in your environment. As writers, we spend a lot of time closed off from the rest of the world. It’s important to get out as much as possible, engage with other people, commune with nature and the world at large. We need to give our brains a break from creating – and to give joy a chance to rise again.

6. Illustrate your story rather than write it. Put away your laptop or your notebook. Instead, take out a piece of paper and draw images to tell your story, writes Ben Soyka at the Writing Cooperative. Readers are more visual and enjoy having visual aids to go along with the stories they read, he explains. Besides, the illustration process forces you to develop new creative skills while you consider different ways to share your stories.

Losing the joy of writing is bound to happen at some point in your practice, especially when you put so much of yourself into it. Have faith that the child-like delight will return. And when it does, imagine how much joy you’ll bring to your readers.

Thank you for reading. Happy Holidays! Don’t forget to check out the weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

Writing a Novel Takes Practice

close up photo of gray typewriter
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At a panel discussion I attended several months ago, one of the panelists described how she had a practice novel before ever getting published. She had been toiling on this particular story for months before deciding it wasn’t working. So she tucked it away into a drawer and began working on another novel, which eventually got published.

Up until that day, I had never heard of a practice novel. In that moment, I realized that one or two of the manuscripts I had been working on were most likely practice novels.

For the uninitiated, practice novels are written manuscripts that usually never get published. They serve to help you learn how to craft a story in novel form and work out different story ideas and angles. “Chances are the successful first novel is the one that was published, not the first one written,” writes author Donna Cook on her blog.

Think of a practice novel as the warm up concert act before the headliner hits the stage.

Tackling a novel is hard work, and not everyone is cut out for it. Writing a practice novel can lay the groundwork for future success, while helping you work out the kinks of your writing process. If you harbor any doubts or have any question about your abilities, the practice novel can usually answer them.

Here are several ways that practice novels can help your writing.

Practice novels are ideal for beginning writers. While many first-time published authors have previous writing experience, and perhaps have earned a degree from an MFA program, most beginning writers are starting to figure out how to write a novel. Practice novels help you learn the art of storytelling – from plot structure, dialogue, character development, even sentence structure. You learn as you go along, by learning from mistakes, picking up helpful tips from other writers, or by taking occasional workshops. It’s a piecemeal process, and a lengthy one. Even after spending several years working on a manuscript, off and on between other projects, that time is not wasted because you are continually honing your craft.

Practice novels help you gain insights about yourself. As you write each day, you learn how to set goals for yourself and solve storytelling problems. You pay more attention to how you think and how you feel. You may pay more attention to conversations around you, observe how you interact with others, and examine scenery with an eye for color and detail. Through your characters, you learn what makes people tick. Practice novels help you see your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and help you determine if you have what it takes to pursue this strange ambition. Novel writing isn’t for everyone, but a practice novel can tell you if this path is right for you.

Practice novels can help you test out different genres. If you read a variety of genres, it’s only natural that you want to experiment with each of those styles. Perhaps you’re a fan of both romantic suspense and mystery/thrillers, for example. While the two share common elements, there are also differences. You might experiment with both of them, but find through practice that writing a thriller fits your writing style better. Practice novels can help you figure out which genre best suits your writing style and whether your story idea has wheels.

Practice novels may never get published, but parts of it can be – later. It’s rare that the practice novel manuscript gets published at all. There are a few exceptions, such as Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but published many years later. Most readers and critics agree it wasn’t nearly as prolific as Mockingbird. While most practice novels never see the light of day, some can be utilized in bits and pieces. For example, author Anne Allen, used pieces of her practice novel for another one she wrote 15 years later. Likewise, you may decide that some of the scenes and characters from your first unpublished manuscript are worth saving for the purpose of using in other works. The work you’ve done on a practice novel is never wasted when parts of it can be used in future works.

Practice novels can help you stick to a regular writing practice. When you know you are working toward a specific goal, like completing a novel, it’s much easier to write every day. It’s also much easier to find time to write, no matter how busy you are, because you are immersed in your work-in-progress.

Instead of practice novels, try writing short stories. Many people find the prospect of writing a novel daunting, like climbing a mountain when you’ve never climbed before. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a smaller project, like a short story, which can provide valuable storytelling skills, like plot, character development, and pacing, according to The Writing Cooperative. Further, if you decide to send out that short story to an editor or critique group, you’ll likely get feedback faster. People may be more inclined to review a 20-page manuscript than a 200-page novel. With speedier turnaround time, you’ll learn sooner rather than later whether your work is any good, and what you may need to do to improve it.

Practice novels require a lot of time, effort and patience, but that time is never wasted. Each hour you put into your practice novel is time well spent learning about crafting stories. Even if your practice novel never gets published, just completing one is worth celebrating.

 

How Stories Are Revealed to Us — One Layer at a Time

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Have you ever stopped to consider where stories come from? I’m not just talking about the words on a page. It’s more than that. It’s the stories we view around us – at an art museum, on stage at a theater, behind the brick and glass storefront building, or behind the eyes of child.

Stories come in various shapes, sizes and formats. One single item can produce multiple story lines, which I call layers. Think of an onion. You peel back the skin to reveal multiple layers underneath. Every story is like that. It isn’t one single story being told; it is several, and not all at the same time.

I came to this conclusion while wandering the French Impressionism exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago recently, and again at the Shedd Aquarium. I later contemplated those same ideas as I watched movies and TV shows, and listened to music.

With each work of art, there is more than one story being told. First, there is a story about the work itself – how it came into being, the creator’s motivation and inspiration, and the tools and materials the artist chose to use to create it.

But behind the artwork’s story, there is a story about the artist. Where does she/he live? What was happening in their lives when they were creating this piece? Why did they become an artist? What message did they want to share?

I think of the French Impressionist artists and I wonder about their personal stories. Why did Van Gogh cut off his ear, and what did he really see when he painted The Starry Night? Why was Monet fascinated by the different plays of light throughout the day? How did Toulouse-Lautrec compensate for his physical disabilities?

Then there is the story of the museum and its relationship to the work and to the artist. Why is the museum showing this piece of work? How did they acquire it? How are they displaying the work – in a darkened room with a single spotlight on it, or in an open space with similar works?

I saw similar stories at the Shedd Aquarium and its display of sea life from around the world. From the smallest fish to the dolphins and whales, there are stories about each one. Why are they so important to our knowledge of the sea world? How is each one created? What does it eat? How does it move or swim?

Trace that same story to the region in which the fish live. Do they swim in the Caribbean, or in the Midwestern lakes? Part of the answer to that question is biological of course. You won’t find a stingray swimming along the shores of Lake Michigan, when it needs warm salt water of the ocean to survive.

Apply that layering approach to the people in our lives. Each one has a story. Some are obvious, carried on their sleeve. Others are deeply hidden, but you can see it in their eyes. “The eyes are the window to the soul.”  I believe that to be true, which makes me wonder about the people who frequently wear sunglasses, even on a cloudy day. What story about themselves are they reluctant to reveal?

Stories abound all around us. We only see the ones on the surface. There are layers of stories for each tree, each animal and each person we meet in our lives. But we are all like onions, with layers upon layers of stories within us. It takes a certain amount of self-awareness to know those stories are there. It takes even more courage to share those stories with others.