Sarah's blog

  Subscribe to RSS feed

Saturday, November 17, 2012



This is the second in a series of posts in which I share a talk I’ve given widely around the USA over the last year or two. I hope you’ll find the posts useful, and before I begin you might like to read the first extract if you haven’t already:  Here, I talked about ideas – in particular, what might constitute an extraordinary one (in terms of writing fiction). And again, please remember the very specific sub-title of the talk: The art of creating a great, saleable story and the craft of teasing out its full potential. My aim is to be both reflective and practical; big picture and small picture; art and craft.

So, onwards into Part 2! 

After you’ve had your Big Idea - the WHAT IF that might form the foundation of your story – what else do you need?


In other words, a strong ‘emotional driver’, which will propel your story forward and ultimately make it a satisfying and memorable reading experience. Which will turn the WHAT IF of your plot into the reader’s very own, very personal, WHAT IF as they inhabit the world, the characters, the dilemmas, you’ve created. And as your protagonist’s interior world - their dramas, confusions and choices – reflect and illuminate those of the reader him/herself, so that through your story the reader makes their own emotional journey. So that your story ends up having something strongly emotional to say - not didactically, but organically, through the action and characters.

‘What are you trying to SAY in your story?’ That’s the question, more than any other, that I ask my clients of their works in progress. I don’t mean ‘What lesson are you trying to teach the reader?’ I mean, through the power and the thrust of your storytelling, what important new understanding do you hope to open up for your reader by the time they turn the final page?  How will you have shed new and unique light on love, hope, family, faith (or whatever), in such a way that they are caught up emotionally in what they’ve discovered and the journey of the heart that they’ve made?

I have said it before and I’ll say it many more times, but this is one of my favourite quotes about writing. I’ve no idea who said it, and I suspect I’ve added my own embellishments, but here it is:
In an extraordinary story, the best stories, we don’t just discover more about the characters (ie, what they look like/do/say) – we discover more about ourselves.

Again: Great fiction makes us discover more about . . .ourselves.

I think the great artist Picasso was saying something very similar when he commented, ‘Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.’

My own reading persuades me on that – and I think yours will too. What personal journey did you make as you read WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech or THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green or THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie? As you read RULES by Cynthia Lord or THE REPLACEMENT by Brenna Yovanoff or WIMPY KID by Jeff Kinney.

‘Er, back up a moment,’ I hear you say. ‘Did you really mean to say WIMPY KID???  But that’s fun and funny; that’s . . . really light.’

Hah yes. But I believe that ‘truth’ can be conveyed through all kinds of stories, for all age groups, picturebooks upwards – and that includes through humour. If you’ve never read TWO WEEKS WITH THE QUEEN by Morris Gleitzman, have a look and see how closely humour can walk with poignancy; comedy with tragedy. It’s all about creating the insight, that kernel of wisdom, which makes the reader sit up and say, ‘I know exactly what they’re talking about. That’s me! I’ve been there – I AM there!’

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the best comedy is very close to pain, very close to the bone. Think about it.

Let’s regroup for a moment:

Where might your big idea, your inspired concept, come from? Your family history, the news, a documentary, a morsel overheard on train or plane . . .? Absolutely. But something else must happen as you process and blend those fragments, because writing great fiction is not simply about, or from, the intellect. It comes from your emotional responses to the world around you.

Yes, your emotional responses to the world around you.

In my previous post I mentioned iconic British author Graham Greene’s quote about stories coming from our ‘emotional compost’. Let’s expand that quote. Greene said: ‘All good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of your imagination. Your past is full of stories that have been composed in a certain way; that’s what memories are. But only when they decompose are you able to recompose them into new works of art.’

Wow. You might want to take a little time with that one. The link between memory, story, and art.

So what about that ‘deeply felt theme’; the ‘emotional driver’ I mentioned at the beginning?

The great writing teacher, Robert Olen Butler, talks about writing ‘from the white-hot center of your unconscious’ (THE PLACE WHERE YOU DREAM/Grove Press/Edited by Janet Burroway). Or, to put it another – maybe less intimidating – way: writing with passion. And I believe that however you subsequently craft it, your story must be drawn from something raw and powerful inside you. Something passionate. Something white hot.

Back in the day, I used to have a band. I wrote songs. I performed a bit. So the image I return to is that of a guitar string. As you pluck it, the string twangs and resonates. As writers, do we twang and resonate as we listen, reflect and take part in the world? How might that resonance affect your story? What do you deeply know and feel - and could you make your reader experience that understanding too?

I also believe that if you want to write with power, you may at times need to look at, interact with, draw on, the darkness within yourself.

What is your personal heart of darkness? Oh, it exists all right.

I know a writer who lost someone very close to them. It was a terrible tragedy. But that individual told me that after writing many manuscripts that didn’t get anywhere, they finally dared to access some of the almost untouchably painful experiences of the past and channel them into their writing. I don’t mean that the specific story was told in memoir-style. I just mean that some of the rawness that surrounded those feelings and events was allowed to percolate into the story in various ways. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that was the manuscript that finally found a publisher. It felt real; there was an intensity.

What is your story? What preoccupies and interests you? Whatever it is, I think that to be a writer it must come out of your head and into your heart – initially, at least. That there must be an intensity in your engagement with your characters, story, world.

One of my favourite words is ‘vocation’. It speaks of a big dream, a big mission.

I know that I have a vocation. To use all my years of editorial and business experience to help writers find their way. At the moment I have no interest in writing a novel of my own. I am the midwife to yours. Sure, it’s a job. But actually it’s a lot more than that; it’s what I know I’m supposed to be doing, and that’s why I’m driven.

I believe that as an author of fiction you also have a vocation. What is it? To deeply ‘get’ the chaos of being human and everything it comprises – the pain, the dilemmas; but also the humour and the sweetness of life. And then, from that understanding, to be able to perceive order and meaning in that chaos – so that you can then use it to create a unique story framework; a shape to the messiness of being human that will ultimately become a new work of art.

Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth. Thank you, Picasso.


In Part 3: Getting practical: You’ve decomposed the memories; turned emotional compost into a Big Idea suffused with (controlled) emotion. Now to plant some seeds (ie, get words down).

Pix:  1) A knife. And an orange. Draw your own conclusions.  2) Greenhouse window during the great Washington DC snowstorms of a couple of years back.  3) My guitar. She’s a beauty; a Yamaha semi-acoustic.  4) The heart of darkness - Vietnam war memorial, Washington DC; shot on one steaming hot summer night.

Posted by greenhouse

Comments (10)

I am reading and digesting your pieces, Sarah, and thinking of them as a writer’s manifesto. The gold ingot of this one, for me as a writer who loves comedy, is “the best comedy is very close to pain, very close to the bone.”


Posted by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin  on  11/18  at  12:16 AM

Thank you for this post, Sarah, it’s great, so insightful.

I think my songs may be decomposing . . .

Posted by Mimi Cross  on  11/18  at  04:07 PM

Wonderful, thank you. This is so insightful and lucid. I have added it to the reading list for my creative writing students.

Posted by Stroppy Author  on  11/18  at  05:37 PM

Thanks for these posts. I love how you’re using the very skills you’re writing about to draw us in to your tale about telling tales.

I particularly love the idea of bringing my own preoccupations and interests ‘out of my head and into my heart.’ That’s made me realise that often when I have ideas for stories, I think I forget to include that important part of myself in them. And then what more are they than just a idea that anyone could have?

I wonder if I’m getting so bogged down in not wanting to be didactic, that I forget what makes my stories unique is that they’re mine and only I can tell them my way.

You’ve set me off on a very interesting train of thought, thank you.

Posted by Jo Thomas  on  11/18  at  06:42 PM

Great post, thank you.

Now, I’m just trying to get my mind around you playing guitar in a band. I’m picturing a female version of the Ramones. Am I right? grin

Posted by  on  11/19  at  12:48 PM

I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year and while I’ve reached the word target I’m still 1/4 off finishing my draft. My life is wild at the moment and everything is done in a rush.
This post stilled me.
I sat to read it while I sculled my morning coffee before my attempt to pack 3 rooms to move before lunch. I had intended on skim reading; it was impossible to.
As I read, every nagging To Do list item went away, and my foot stopped tapping frantically. It felt suddenly very important to be calm and absorb what was written.
Really, really great post. They’re always great but this one in particular has something special.

Posted by  on  11/20  at  10:38 PM

Eagerly anticipating the next blog!

Posted by  on  12/14  at  10:09 AM

Inspirational, Sarah. Please keep it up.

Posted by  on  12/24  at  11:25 PM

This post is rousing and quite profound; it sent me running for a blank page! I’m looking forward to the next installment. I especially love your comment about “the best comedy” being “very close to pain, very close to the bone.” That is so true, but not necessarily intuitive. If you wrote a novel, I would be the first preorder wink

Posted by Erika  on  01/12  at  07:41 PM

An-advice beautifully written.  Surely, I will come back to it again and again.

Posted by  on  01/21  at  03:30 PM
Page 1 of 1 pages





Submit the word you see below: