Uncategorized, writing advice

Creating Stone Soup With a Pen

Now, you all remember Stone Soup, don’t you? In it, starving strangers convinced villagers to add ingredients to their pot of broth, one containing only water and a single stone. As the villagers agreed and added their contributions, the soup fed them all.

So, stay with me here. When writing, the stone is your story idea that you water while you also add ingredients to the genesis of that idea. For example:

Tossing carrots into the pot could = creating characters.

Potatoes? Plot!

Squash is the setting. You get the idea.

In the case of soup, if you needed something heartier, you could just add milk and salt, and then blend it all together – well, please remember to remove the stone.

With writing, it would be nice if we could just delete the words we don’t need and then put all of the rest into a Word-Whirl-a-Blender to mix everything into perfect proportions.

But, first, someone needs to invent a whirl-a-blender for writers. Besides, more ingredients – also known as life experiences – are needed, as well. Here’s what I might add; your list would be different.

Early signs of becoming a writer often include being a voracious reader, as I was and still am. You know you’ve reached that point when, to make room for your next set of books, you’re planning to discard the refrigerator.

Going back in time more than forty years, when I was only ten years old, my grandmother introduced me to a mystery novel written by a British woman named Agatha Christie. I thought it was the most incredible story ever told. My nana then suggested I ask the library to allow me to check out more Christie novels, even though the age limit for such an adult check-out experience was twelve.

I asked.

I received.

And, when the librarian explained to me that there were even more mystery series than those written by Christie, I believe I swooned. (Note to my readers and listeners: If my New Year’s Resolution hadn’t been to limit my personal use of hyperbole, I would have claimed that I’d fainted.)

I quickly stopped getting invites to book clubs, though. While other attendees might want to discuss how romantic the leading characters were, for example, I’d focus on reverse engineering what the writer did so I could try that technique myself.

I wore out my friends pretty quickly, too, when all I’d wanted to do was have each of us read a different book and then create quizzes about the books for other people to take.

Fun, right?

By this point in my life, I was wondering if I, too, could someday become a writer. And, since every writer wants to create at least one true masterpiece in his or her lifetime, I was exceptionally fortunate when I wrote mine when I was just twelve . . . years . . . old.

Titled The Haunted House Mystery, it cleverly used every device ever invented in any Scooby-Doo episode ever aired but using the neighborhood kids as characters. Velma was transformed into Kathy and Fred into Mikey, and so on and so forth.

Of course, since, as an adult, I now recognize this as plagiarism, I would have to remove this specific ingredient before putting the other ones into my literary blender. Having said that, I could still hold onto the lessons that writing this play had taught me.

And, when I started writing for submission, you still needed to dance an intricate waltz of knowing just the right steps of including a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Just as I was getting that minuet down, though, along came the concept of online submissions — making my envelope skill as relevant as doing a mean bump to KC and the Sunshine Band at the local discothèque.

Then there’s that stale taste of rejection. It reminds me of the flavor of a wooden tongue depressor that’s been sitting in a doctor’s office for far too long. Open up wide; just say “awwww.”

I went through a stage of Bob Dylan envy, I have to admit. Mostly, it consisted of listening to the lyrics of a song written by Bob, and then wishing I’d been able to think of such exquisite phrasing. That stage started when I was a teenager and it went all the way through – well, I’m still in that stage. So, what.

I was writing prose at that time, but I also wanted to write poetry. Initial strategies included calling a piece of my writing a prose poem. I mostly used that phrase, of course, with people who didn’t even know what it meant — and I practiced saying it with confidence! “This, my friend,” I’d say, raising my eyebrows high and nodding in a knowing fashion, “this is a Prose Poem.”

And, while other people looked at restaurant menus as mere vehicles to decide what one wanted to order for dinner, I could now look at a listing for, say, apple-glazed salmon, and realize how this food description could make quite a lovely haiku.

Then, around 1994, I suddenly needed to make a huge decision. Was I willing to give up the sharp smell of fresh pencil shavings for the sleek experience of computer keyboarding?

Ultimately, I did. And here’s why. In 1990, I’d made $35 in my freelance writing career. Yes, that’s for the entire year. In 1991, I made $25. When my husband gently pointed out how, if you added these two figures together . . . then divided them in half . . . then I was making an annual salary of $30 —and that was before taxes.

So, I realized how I needed to up my game and I got a job as a freelancer at the local newspaper. We were called “stringers” back then, and we were required to submit our articles through a computer they’d provided me. So, welcome to world of the keyboard.

I boldly took on the task of writing about mud ordinances — if you put mud on the road, were you legally obligated to remove that mud? — along with an entire series of pieces on what to do with a water tower when it was no longer a viable part of a city’s water system. (So, yes. You have now actually met the writer of the water tower series!)

Why, I even started getting published in magazines, including a fine piece — if I say so myself — on washing machine warranties. I gained mad skills, including how to keep on keyboarding in sticky splendor when the cat dumped a cup of coffee in precisely the wrong place. Bylines were pretty cool, too, even when they misspelled my last name.

And, after years of reading in issues of a writer’s magazine that I should keep a pen and pad of paper by my bed at all times to capture late night ideas, I actually had a middle-of-the-night notion that was worth writing down.

Unfortunately, reading it the next morning only reminded me of when my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Kane, informed the entire class that my handwriting may be beyond redemption. It also reminded me of my eighth-grade English teacher, Miss Wrezinski, who more kindly told me that she was sure I’d written something magnificent. She only wished she could read it without the need for a magnifying glass.

Another night, after binge-reading British cozy mysteries, I had a horrible nightmare — one where I was being viciously chased down by a giant Mack truck. I awoke, screaming, “That bloody lorry!” in my best British accent before wondering. If I paced the re-telling of this story just right and created sentence structure that brilliantly built up a mood of suspense, could I write down this anecdote in the word count required by Reader’s Digest?

I began experimenting with literacy devices, too, especially loving alliteration – although I would wonder about the wisdom of writing that way. (Wink, wink.)

I learned more about revision, especially after learning that people prefer intriguing characters over stereotyped ones who spoke in clichés. Whoever would have thought? I also learned more about proofreading techniques. This helps if, say, your character with a shiny blonde bob of hair on page twelve was, on page three, actually a stunning brunette—and no hair coloring scene had taken place in the interim.

My family got used to choosing between peanut butter sandwiches or scrambled eggs with ketchup for dinner when deadlines got tight. And, because I was so enthusiastic about writing, I often took on too much work.

I knew I was finally making it, though, when five amazing things happened.

  1. Research librarians were calling me by my first name.
  2. A bookstore owner said, “Ma’am! I’ve got great news. We have a new thesaurus.”
  3. My nephew earnestly told me he wouldn’t consider me a nerd. No way. By now, Doug thought, I was a full-fledged geek.
  4. My cousin Steve, who is a college professor, let me know that a student got caught plagiarizing – and it was from one of the books I’d written.
  5. Even deadlines felt – and still feel – quite marvelous. 

Life got deep sometimes, though. For example, if I saw an error on a billboard, I started to spend countless hours meditating on its metaphorical implications. I became encouraged to delve more deeply in my writing, too, which was good advice. Sometimes, that was reasonably simple to achieve, comparable to getting your great-grandma some parsnips from her root cellar. Other times, though, it felt like spelunking in an underground cave, trying to listen for the sounds of the water table.

Being a writer is to be a lifelong learner. A few years ago – already in my fifties – I decided to take a poetry class at the local college with a highly regarded professor who had an illustrious portfolio of poetry. I could do the assignments, following his instructions about form, topic, and so forth — but I didn’t really understand what he’d meant when he said that prose uses sentences and poetry uses lines.

I followed up that class with a 15-week independent study with this professor and, several weeks in, I shouted the following: “Prose,” I exclaimed, “uses sentences and poetry uses lines!” His expression was completely deadpan. I don’t think he knew whether I was being a smart aleck or whether I’d finally gotten it. But I had my eureka moment, one that continues to propel me forward as I learn more about the art and craft of poetry.

As for the professor, on that day, he just said. “Yes. Um. That’s correct.”

And now that I’ve reached the thirtieth year of my professional writing career, I can say that there are two especially wonderful parts of the writing life. The first one is, you can keep on creating (at least on pieces that aren’t already under contract!). Unlike real life, then, in your personal writing, nothing needs to be finished until you say it is.  

For example, even The Haunted House Mystery could be brought back into the light and made better. In that case, of course, it would need to be made much better. As in much, much, much better. But you get my drift, don’t you?

Finally, here’s the very best part. It’s the people you meet, those with whom you can exchange Stone Soup ingredients. They understand perfectly, for example, when you wander about a room, appearing to be talking to yourself. They realize how you could be trying out your character’s quirky voice or mulling over the meter of your newest poem.

Or, maybe you’re just creating a grocery list — and that’s okay, too. Writers need to eat, even if it’s just a P and J sandwich on the run. And, when you extend these same courtesies to the other amazing people on your Stone Soup journey, this makes for a uniquely beautiful life.