Something that I have been working on in my craft for much of 2014 is getting the real story right in my work. There is a novel I wrote about 10 years ago that I’ll just call Secret Shame here in the online studio. I wrote it when I was connected to a group of Atlanta writers, and we all decided to give ourselves a deadline and complete a project. One of us was working on a poetry manuscript and another on a collection of poems. I think only the two of us who worked on novels completed the task by the deadline. I was so pleased with myself when the final manuscript was done because it was a signal that I could actually finish a full novel-length project. It has been sitting and collecting dust because I was just too overwhelmed to start thinking about revision.
The Randall Kenan workshop I took recently, however, was a boost for this story and other projects. It taught me that the story I was telling was missing some balance. No character is all evil, or all mysterious. Humans are just way more complex than this. So I walked out of that workshop with a confident revision strategy and a strong opening for a new story.
Part of learning how to do this for me comes from reading. Lately, I’ve been taken with Mark Helprin, Sarah Addison Allen and Alice Hoffman and re-reading Toni Morrison, Sue Monk Kidd, Octavia Butler, Kaye Gibbons and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These writers and a few others are the cornerstone reminders for a statement that someone made in Kenan’s workshop: Lots of people are writing but few are telling good stories.
Hearing someone say this out loud flipped a switch in me, somehow. Not only did I want to be among those who do know how to tell a good story, but I also felt my radar buzz itself on. I now have resumed the habit of consuming books, films and TV series in search of the good story. TV has been quite instructive.
While the world (and I) stay mesmerized by the wonder of Shonda Rhimes (and she is a good storyteller), I am keeping my eye on two shows, Black-ish and Jane the Virgin — partially because both Kenya Barris and Jennie Snyder Urman use similar devices — theomniscient voice-over. We are in a character’s or narrator’s head following the plot.
I have to admit, I almost missed the good storytelling in the pilot of Black-ish because I was so hung up on what I felt was worn-out content exploration. The storyline of the black corporate type selected to head “urban” projects because he is black is bent so far for me that I can almost hear the break before it happens. Fortunately, Barris bounces back with other “good story” material in other episodes, so my attention ultimately returns to the overall storytelling itself … it’s much like the omniscient Meredith Grey voice that opens each episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
I bring up the device used in these two stories because I realize that both of the novels I’ve ventured to write do the same thing. This is my chance to see what works, and what doesn’t … in a different medium, of course. I am tuning out the voices of those who advise not to read or expose myself to other writers while I’m writing. This doesn’t make good craft logic to me. I am also recognizing that a good story in one medium has something very important in common with all other good stories in every other medium: It grabs the listener by his curiosity from the very beginning and takes him on a ride he will not ever forget.