Saturday, July 05, 2014

Recognizing Story

I have a cousin that repairs and restores televisions, radios and the like.  He learned his craft working for his dad, my mother’s brother, who only recently retired and closed the TV repair shop he owned and operated for decades in Arcadia, California.  I worked for him in that same TV repair shop one summer when I was 13 years old, cleaning up and organizing components, eventually learning how to test for problems and do very basic repairs.  
About four years ago, my cousin was in town visiting his dad and I went over to visit with them.  He told me about this interesting restoration job he was working on.  A local TV weatherman had an old Crosley stereo from the 40’s or 50’s he wanted restored and made functional again, specifically the turntable.  My cousin took the job and discovered something interesting while taking it apart.  
Inside the stylus, instead of the magnetic coil that should have been there to translate the grooves on the record into electronic signals that would later be amplified into sound, there was a small mirror and a tiny photovoltaic cell.  Photovoltaic cells were invented in 1954, but the Crosley looked to be a decade older than that, and he had never heard of photovoltaic cells being used in stereos until decades later.  And yet, the tiny mirror and cell inside the stylus cartridge looked as if it had built into about the time the stereo was built.  
My cousin’s story fascinated me.  When I got home, I started researching stereos like the Crosley and photovoltaic cells.  I began writing about a young handyman, a nerdy, socially inept character that rarely contacted other people, being given job after job by some wealthy guy that had similar anachronistic features.  Machines and devices from earlier times that had parts that hadn’t been invented for decades after their manufacture.  I spent about a year and a half writing and adding and rewriting what I had put done.  
Nothing ever came of it, though.  I never finished the story because there was no story to finish.  I had an odd little fact that I was trying to stretch into a story, but which wouldn’t stretch far enough.  
That’s what’s been on my mind this week.  Not this particular story seed thing that is still sitting there in my computer files.  But the recognition of when a story exists and how to handle it.  
Writing about the three stories that I’ve had accepted/published so far, one of the features they shared was the certain knowledge I had at the time that “This,” whatever I was working on, “Is a Story!”  
How did I know that?  It depended on the story.  With Random Access, I just knew.  It was an inspirational burst that came over me.  A burst inspired by a desire to get the girlfriend that had decided to become my ex out of my head ASAP, no doubt, but even that wasn’t consciously perceived.  By the time I started writing Shadow Angel, I had enough experience writing to recognize it wasn’t a story that I had, but an idea.  A line of dialogue actually.  I knew other parts needed to be added to it before it crossed the threshold from “idea” to “story.”  
How had I learned to tell?  
Well, one thing I had come to realize is that for me, as far as writing one story as possible, writing is something of a “chicken and the egg” problem.  To write a story, I need to have it figured out.  It’s possible that I have it figured out intuitively, like with Random Access.  With the rough draft of my novel, I had a very basic framework in my head; a beginning, a situation and knowing how it ended.  With that, and four months of time, I was able to finish a 216,000+ word rough draft.  With Robot Boss, I had the story figured out the same day I got the idea.  The next couple of months were spent writing and rewriting when I got stuck.  
That’s the egg part.  The chicken part of the problem is that I often figure stories out BY writing them.  Or writing about them.  Shadow Angel is the best example I can think of, where I started with that first line of dialogue, “I want you to take me to Broombridge before this gets sent to me,” and added to it, bit by bit.  
At the time I started working on the idea about the anachronistic stereo, I couldn’t tell the difference between an idea and an actual story.  
One way I can now see that I have a story is by writing a logline.  This is the first step of the Snowflake Method I wrote about last week.  The easier it is for me to summarize into a fifteen word or so logline, the more certain I am that I have a story.  
Here’s an example: “Shark terrorizes seaside resort.”  That’s only four words, but everyone knows, or ought to know, that this is the story behind the movie “Jaws.”  Of course there is loads of information left out, but that is part of how the story is told, not the story itself. 
It is also why ideas can’t be copyrighted or protected, but stories can.  That logline, “Shark terrorizes seaside resort,” can produce as many versions of the story as there are writers on this planet.  That’s because each one of them will take that story and emphasize different parts of, and bring in different characters to tell it.  It’s the work of bringing that story to life that is protected.  Not the idea itself.  
And that touches upon another aspect of story that I’ve learned over years of attempts.  Story is not about what takes place.  That’s plot.  Story is about what you want to tell people and why.  
Shadow Angel, for instance, was a very important story for me to tell.  Not so much for the “What” part, which was my expression of the duality of human existence, how we are most ourselves when at rest, but we express who we are when engaged in something important.  But the “Why,” part, which touched upon my own desires to create a world where my stories could be planted, take root, and produce a crop to be shared with the people that read them.  I worked hard to discover the story in Shadow Angel, and “get it right” because, rightly or wrongly, I felt it would be my one best chance to stake a claim for the viability of my future vision. That’s why it took so long to find the way to tell this story.  
Which gives me this: To recognize that I have a story to tell, I need to be able to summarize it in as compact a way as possible.  I need to be clear on what I am trying to tell people and why it is important for me to tell them.  And, when I see that I don’t have a story yet, I need to write out the things I don’t know to add to the seed that started it, to grow a story as quickly as possible.  
Does that sound about right?  Let me know if you think otherwise. 


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