Some Tools for Building Stories

I’ve written my share of fiction off and on over the years, and as a result, I’ve developed a few ways of building stories—tools of the trade, as it were. These have worked for me more often than not. So for any of you who are interested in trying your hand at building stories, or who have tried and met with the seemingly endless frustration that comes with such exercise, herewith, some pointers. See if any of these are of practical use.

To learn to write, copy other writers. Literally. I did this with Jack London stories because, years ago, I read that Jack London used to copy out or type out Rudyard Kipling stories. That’s how Jack London got a handle on how to write. So I tried it, too. What I discovered was that, by doing this, I was able to watch the story take shape in slow motion as I typed. No matter how slowly you read, you type a lot more slowly than that. Sometimes, it was almost as though I could sense why Jack London chose this word rather than that one, or went in this direction rather than the other.

I didn’t do this to an extreme degree; I typed out perhaps half a dozen of his stories. But it was sufficient that a professor at Kent State University, whom I met in the 1970s, commented that in my early stories, I sounded kind of like Jack London. When I told him what I’d done, he was amused.

Another good idea: Take a book you like by a writer you admire and tear the book apart. Literally, if you have to. Make an outline of that book the way you learned to do outlines in high school. Tear out the passages that describe characters and their backgrounds and tape them onto notebook paper. Retype the dialogue to see if you’d do it the same way. You’ll get inside that story like nobody’s business and very soon feel confident about building your own stories. Everybody starts at ground level, so tear that writer’s story back down to the ground and then rebuild it. Continue reading

About “The Man Who Would Be King”

At the beginning of the 1990s, when I was working as a medical editor on the staff of Neurology, coworkers of mine around the lunch table learned that, at one time, Stephen King and I had had the same literary agent. This caused them no end of amusement at my expense. What happened? they would ask, thinking that they were being clever. Stephen King wound up being this gajillionaire popular writer, and you’re working here!

Patiently I would explain that I had given up my pursuit of writing best sellers because I preferred to devote my time to editing medical science papers. I chose my destiny; I didn’t allow Fate to just willy–nilly pick me out of a crowd and make me an object of wealth and celebrity. I preferred to do humanity a service by editing important research rather than, you know, writing stories about rabid dogs and ass weasels jumping out of people’s butt holes and making millions of dollars doing it. (Stephen King, I mean. It’s Stephen King who makes the millions of dollars, not the ass weasels.)

This is the God’s truth, but it isn’t what my coworkers at the lunch table wanted to hear.

Their comments got me thinking, however. What if I hadn’t chosen my destiny and forsworn the quest for literary recognition? What if a different me—let’s call him Dan—had continued to try to make millions of dollars by writing books and continued to fail, and became envious of Stephen King? Continue reading

Seasons of the Moon

The novel has been available for a little more than a year as I write this, and it has generated sufficient comment that I’d like to discuss a few of the ideas I had in mind when I wrote Seasons of the Moon.

Please note that, if you haven’t read the novel yet, the notes below contain what might be considered to some extent “spoilers.”

The structure of the story is a circular or spiral shape to reflect the way in which this community creates narratives about themselves and the world. This is in contrast with a linear narrative, for example, or a hypertext narrative. In the same way that you or I would tell a story in a linear fashion because in our culture events progress along a timeline of beginning, middle, and end, Scott tells his story in the way that his culture, a gynecocentric culture, sees life: as an unfolding or progression of events that move in cycles of birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth, completely in association with the natural world. Life in this culture is not an artificial life dissociated from the natural world and imposed on it, as contemporary life is; it is life that exists in comfortable reciprocity with the natural world.

Seasons of the Moon, in other words, is a story told by an insider who is aware that he could be speaking to outsiders.
d0Because the story proceeds in a recurring circular motif, a spiral motif, we return to certain elements as the story moves around in a spiral. I deliberately designed the story in this fashion. Examples are passages of Scott’s introspection, passages about the town or the community, about Sophie, and so on. I began with the idea of a quite rigid pattern; not surprisingly, this evolved as the story went through its series of drafts. Still, the spiral motif is in there, and of course this motif is essential to the story for symbolic and spiritual reasons.

The conclusion of Seasons of the Moon is not one of redemption. Neither does the story end, for example, with a heiros gamos, a sacred marriage setting all things right, or with all episodes of confusion and mixed-up identities sorted out, as in a farce. It comes to an end someplace on the turn of a spiral, or during Scott’s reflection on the turns of spirals. We come back to where we’re from.

The structure of the narrative also is based on an aspect of how life is appreciated by this culture: boxes within boxes, as it were—that is, the child in the womb, the seed in the earth, the nut inside the husk, the fruit inside the skin. The older Scott within the younger Scott.

For years I wondered about what I called the dramatic moment. It is most obvious in modern Hollywood movies, but it is found nearly everywhere in entertainment—the payoff, the money shot, the special effects ending. In drama and melodrama, but not necessarily in comedy, it tops everything that’s come before it and is supposed to be satisfying in a visceral way. It’s a conceit and a habit and it is the only way we know how to tell some kinds of stories, apparently. So where does this come from, our desire for the big payoff, for the special effects ending?

I came across the answer, not in a book about crafting fiction or playwrighting, but in a history of warfare—in fact, A History of Warfare by the redoubtable John Keegan. In the fourth chapter (p 244 of the Vintage paperback edition), Keegan writes:

During the sixth century BC, war for the Greeks was largely a war between Greeks, as the city states perpetuated their quarrels over land, power and control of trade. It became in the process a new form of warfare, fought with iron weapons, affordable by many more men than had composed the armies of the Mycenaean world, wielded by small farmers who were equal citizens, and used to wage battles of an intensity and ferocity perhaps never seen before. The battles of earlier and other peoples—even those of the Assyrians, though we lack exact details of their conduct on the battlefield—had continued to be marked by elements that had characterized warfare since its primitive beginnings—tentativeness, preference for fights at a distance, reliance on missiles and reluctance to close to arm’s length until victory looked assured. The Greeks discarded these hesitations and created for themselves a new warfare that turned on the function of battle as a decisive act, fought within the dramatic unities of time, place and action and dedicated to securing victory, even at the risk of suffering bloody defeat, in a single test of skill and courage.

. . . an intensity and ferocity . . . within the dramatic unities of time, place and action . . . in a single test of skill and courage. Right there we have a succinct description of what we anticipate in a dramatic moment, the build to some ultimate confrontation that allows for no quarter and that ends irrevocably. It does not seem much chastened by two millennia of Christian piety or by some few hundred years of post-Enlightenment rationalization. We play with guns, we attack the fort, we know how it is going to end. As with nearly everything else in our culture, it goes back to the Greeks.

What, then, would be the method of storytelling in Weyburn, Ohio—one branch of a tree going back much further than the Peloponnesian Wars, its roots in the soil of a culture rich with matriarchal or gynecocentric paganism? It is one based, not on a linear, intractable, or inevitable “single test of skill and courage” but instead on a cyclical, spiraling rhythm of birth, life, death, rebirth, and rejuvenation. This explains why the book ends as it does, and why it satisfies the requirements of the way the book is told by Scott, but without any artificial posturing or invented clash of an ending. It ends on the arc of a spiral, on the curve of a circle, in the middle of an endless cycle.

Also, I have long thought that the elements constituting drama in a culture such as this would be things having to do with nature, women, childbirth, and food. So rather than story arcs about heroes going on a quest, or about conflict that must end decisively, we would have stories about animals and nature, achievement in the face of natural disasters, or stories that end with childbirth. Rather than a million pulp stories that ended with a shootout, such a culture would have given us a million pulp stories that end with a successful and happy childbirth. Rather than stories about sinful straying corrected by redemption, we would have stories about sacrifice and rebirth, about going into the earth and coming back out of it, of leaving some place that is artificial to return to some place that is natural and genuine—literally a place, perhaps, or more likely a state of mind or a way of life.

Will is a continuous presence in the book, from the very start, when Scott looks out the window at night and wonders whether Will looked out the window at night when he was Scott’s age. Because the book is a coming-of-age story, it is a long tug of war about what is means to be male, to be masculine, in this culture or in any other sense.

The philosophy of the book is made explicit in the paragraph on the bottom of page 128. I debated not including this paragraph when I was revising the manuscript; my concern was that it is too explicit in summarizing what the book is about:

Nothing is hidden; we just have to learn to see. Nothing is revealed; everything is here with us. The mystery is a mystery because it is a wonder, not a secret.

The first two sentences in particular reinforce Scott’s using his mother’s camera to learn to see as his mother did; by the end of the story, of course, he has learned to do just that for himself (assisted to a large degree by his going through his own underground initiation, almost literally, when he and Will are hiding in the ravine). The first sentence also is a comment on the boxes-within-boxes imagery in the book, which reflects how reality is put together.

The second sentence of my paragraph is a direct refutation of revealed religion, which I consider to be thoroughly strange and thoroughly fabricated, and essentially dishonest. The idea of sin, in particular, is an evil notion and degrading to human beings.

Finally, the mystery is not a secret because there is no secret. Nothing is hidden; nothing is revealed; there is no secret; life is hiding in plain sight, as it were, all around us. This is the so-called mystery of natural or earth-based faiths. This sense of wonder and kinship with the natural world is worthy of human beings because it allows us to engage in our birthright to partake as fully as we can in life. By and large, this should be about the best we can do as human beings. Nevertheless, as we know, a great deal of human history shows us, not as partaking as fully as we can in life, but shows us to be mainly pack animals that prey upon one another. And the society in Weyburn, Ohio, understands that we are basically animals, not fallen angels.

There is, I suppose, a fourth sentence or sentiment that could be added to this discussion, and that is something that Sophie tells Scott late in the book, after his adventure with Will: “The body knows the truth.” With our growing awareness today of the benefits of nutrition and exercise, the knowledge that we are mind-bodies or body-minds, and scientific advances that clearly illuminate the importance of our genetic makeup in everything from susceptibility to heritable diseases to gender identity, we have come more and more to realize that we are not personalities carried around in a brain case and looking out at the world through eye holes but that we are, in fact, our bodies and our body processes.

Scott’s progression to awareness is marked by specific kinds of trees. Each kind of tree has a distinctive meaning, although I didn’t explicitly provide the meanings of the trees each time one is mentioned. But the twigs and sticks Miss Gardner uses for her readings, for example, are specifically oak for strength, beech for the past, fir for sight, willow for continuity, ash to balance what is hidden and what is apparent, and so on. Sophie’s mother was buried under an oak tree, and Sophie herself under an ash tree. The shelter where Scott and Will hide in the ravine during the rainstorm is surrounded by beech trees; both of them, there in the underground, are confronting elements of their past, elements having to do with their mothers. (Nothing is hidden; we just have to learn to see.)

Is Seasons of the Moon a feminist book? I don’t think so. I say this because I see feminism as an awareness of and a reaction against patriarchy. The society in my book was never subordinate to patriarchy; it has existed alongside patriarchy for thousands of years. The patriarchy knows this and keeps a safe distance, as the two little boys are warned to do, early in the story, when Diana and Scott find them after they’ve knocked a bird out of a tree. The people of Weyburn, Ohio, follow their own customs and engage in activities that clearly would be regulated or outlawed in other communities—the manner in which they bury their dead, for example. So, as Scott points out, although they are exotic and interesting because of that, they are largely left alone by the people around them.

No one in the book has a name traceable to a Hebrew name in the Bible; in other words, there are no Davids, Michaels, Johns, or Samuels. All of the character names are Celtic, or Anglo-Celtic, or Germanic, or even Greek—rooted, that is, in something other than our Judeo-Christian culture. Sophie’s full name through many drafts was Sophie Geist—literally, translating from the Greek and German, the wisdom spirit, or spirit of wisdom. But as it turned out, in reworking many drafts, the name or word Geist doesn’t appear in the final story.

I find myself thinking that if the general sentiments of the people of Weyburn can be found anywhere in popular culture right now, the television show Medium seems to get it about right.

My friend Joe Bonadonna recently read the book for the second time and found it to be a much richer experience than the first time he read it. To my mind, the book should indeed reward a second or even third reading. After all, it is a continuous spiral. Boxes within boxes should be found within it, connections should become apparent that may not have been obvious on the first reading, and the events should elicit deeper understanding and stimulate reflection. That is, if I have done my job satisfactorily.

With that in mind, it is worth mentioning that I cut the story to the bone, pared it down as much as I could, because I wanted that sense of spareness, of so much left unsaid, to contribute to the tone of the book. I still wonder, however, whether I cut too much. There is a short scene near the end that, as I much as I wanted to, I couldn’t justify including; it had to do with Scott finding the body of a dead dog by the roadside, a dog that still had its identification tags on it, and Scott drawing a parallel between that dog and Will. In the same vein, I provide very little in terms of the spiritual outlook of the men in the community, although it is very rich; perhaps I should have included more. A number of readers would like to know more about the community itself. Perhaps down the road I’ll write a second book about Weyburn and explore its history.

Nonetheless, the story works so well as it is that I can honestly say that it reflects the work I put into it, shaping it into what it needs to be.

Every major character in the story is defined by loss. For most it is a death—Scott and his father have lost Scott’s mother; Sophie is dying; her daughter, Paige, and her husband, Owen, are in the process of losing Sophie, who is dying. Diana is introduced as having lost her husband and children. Earl, Scott’s friend, loses his father; so does Deirdre, Earl’s sister. Dierdre also, of course, is introduced as having begun to lose her innocence in the sense that she has had her first period and so has begun her initiation into womanhood. So each of these characters is in a moment of passing change.