Frequently Asked Questions

A story-teller’s life in five questions.
 

What does it take to be a writer? That is a question that readers, and aspiring writers often ask. Well, there are many elements that must be put together in order to go from wanting to be a writer to actually becoming one. But the first thing one must understand is that a writer, whether he or she be a novelist, a poet, a news reporter, a biographer, or a scribbler of any other kind, is, first and foremost, a story-teller. The job of a writer is to tell a story; whether fiction or non-fiction, whether prose or poetry or something in between, writers tell stories. So, the first thing a writer must do is come up with a story.

But, how does one come up with a story, and not just any story, but an original story; one that hasn’t been told before? All right, brace yourselves for the bad news: There are no original stories. Every imaginable story has already been told – hundreds, if not thousands of times.

Now for the good news: there are ways in which one can take that same old story and give it a new setting, a new twist, different characters, and make it fresh and different, so that it now sounds original. Take blonde jokes as an example. How many of them are there? Hundreds? Thousands? We’ve all heard them and after we think we’ve heard every one of them, someone rattles off a new one. But, if you think about it, they’re all the same joke, the same old story: a blonde does something dumb. Everybody knows how the joke’s going to end from the very beginning, and still, people laugh at them every time. Granted, those jokes aren’t fair to blondes. In reality, we don’t even know how many blondes were actually born brunettes. But that’s not the point. The point is that it is possible to tell the same story a thousand different ways and make it sound fresh and original every time.

So, how does one come up with an original twist to an already-told story? Often the inspiration comes from a news report or an actual historical event. Sometimes, the inspiration begins with an interesting or unusual person who catches our attention. In the case of  Flight to Nowhere, the inspiration came from an actual event that took place in the early days of the Cuban Revolution, an event that is shrouded in mystery to this day, nearly 53 years later: the disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos, a rebel commander whose popularity among the Cuban people rivaled that of Fidel Castro.

The first step in coming up with a story from an event of this kind lies in asking the question “What if?” And that’s what I did. I asked: what if the remains of the plane in which Cienfuegos was riding, the plane that vanished into thin air one day in October of 1959, were recovered 50 years later?

That first question led to a second question: what sort of event could uncover the plane’s remains?

And then, a third question: who would be most likely to find the wreck?

Now I had my mystery and my protagonists (My good guys). All I needed was an antagonist (A bad guy). So, my next question was: who would not want the plane’s remains found? And that fourth question tied in to a fifth: Why not?

And lo and behold, there was my story. Or at least the first half. I had an event that led to a conflict that put people in jeopardy. What was left to do was let my characters duke it out and see who came out ahead.

Of course, I’m not going to deprive you of your fun by blurting out the ending, but I can promise you it will be a thrilling read.

What is the worst writing mistake aspiring fiction authors make?

 

While one might be tempted to say bad spelling, bad grammar, or bad punctuation, I don’t believe that is the correct answer. Of course, works containing that sort of errors would never be considered for publication by any respectable publisher. However, a good story containing misspellings and other grammatical mistakes can be cleaned up and made publishable by a competent editor.

In my view, the worst writing mistake is too much telling and no showing.

What do I mean by that? Let me illustrate. Think about the movie Psycho, based on a novel by Robert Bloch. Remember Norman Bates, the creepy, crazy murderer portrayed by Anthony Perkins in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film? Suppose at the beginning of the movie there had been a scene in which a psychiatrist paged through a folder while giving a detailed explanation of Bates’ psychiatric profile, telling us that he was a paranoid schizophrenic with delusional episodes of role confusion and multiple personalities. Bo-o-oring, don’t you think?

Of course, Hitchcock knew better, so he doesn’t tell us what Bates is like. He shows us. The minute we see someone peeking through a concealed peephole into a female motel guest’s room, we know there's a fruitcake lurking around, even if we don’t know the details at that point. Bates’ personality is revealed by his own actions as the story progresses. That way, the viewers find out through their own deductive and reasoning powers.

This works the same way with a written work. The key is that  readers derive more satisfaction when they take an active part in the story than when they are just passive listeners. The most rewarding stories are those in which, at the end, the readers either shout “I knew it, I had it all figured out!” or “How did I miss that? You fooled me!” A skilled writer uses setting, action and dialogue to help readers understand the motivation of the characters: what they want, how badly they want it and to what lengths they’re willing to go in order to get it.

So, if you’re thinking about writing fiction, remember: don’t tell your readers what your character is like, show them.

Comments