We got talking recently, largely about this blog and the fact that I don’t post nearly as much as I used to. I told her I feared I was running out of ideas.
In terms of writing, my progress on my current novel has been spotty. I’m moving forward, but not nearly as quickly as I’d like.
On the depression and anxiety front, I’m holding my own. Last time I talked about undergoing a transition in anti-depressants, from Prozac to Lexapro. I’m now three weeks into the switch. I can report that I’m not feeling any more depressed than I was, and that I’m even feeling a little less depressed. I am sleeping less, which is a good thing, and I’m taking more active care of myself.
One of the things my girlfriend reminded me of is that anti-depressant medications take a while to work, maybe even a few weeks. So I must be patient.
The other thing: despite how lousy I’ve felt, I’ve not picked up a drink, nor had much of a craving, something that often accompanies a depressive episode in my case. She said I should blog about that, and so I am.
Here is the funny thing. The whole drinking thing has been mentally removed from my list of coping mechanisms, and for that, I am extremely grateful. I really don’t even consider it an option today. And I think I need to say that because it demonstrates extraordinary progress.
You see, I was a hard case. Long a veteran of the Whisky Wars, I grew up drinking. It dominated my life for three decades. I won’t go into details—you can read some of them on this site—but suffice it to say there was a point in my life, in fact several points in my life, when I and those around me thought it was impossible for me to stop drinking.
Friends, that is a dark place. It’s a place I never want to go again, and a place I would love to be able to stop people from reaching. The way I’ve managed to stay the course, to stem the tide, if you will, is to realize that for me, today, drinking is a choice. And today, I choose not to drink.
The writing will come.
The medication transition will be fine.
I wanted to state these things to show others there is hope. People can change, and change can be lasting. I offer each and every one of you, my love and support as you continue throughout this day and the weekend.
Recently, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of talking with writers who are working on their first novels. I’ve been asked the question: How do I start writing a book?
My best answer involves a look at framing the story question.
What exactly does that mean, and how might it help you start your novel?
In Anne Lamott’s wonderful book Bird by Bird, she mentions an interview with Carolyn Chute, the author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine. In the interview Chute says, “I feel like a lot of time my writing is like having about twenty boxes of Christmas decorations. But no tree. You’re going, Where do I put this? Then they go, Okay, you can have a tree, but we’ll blindfold you and you gotta cut it down with a spoon.” Ann Lamott goes on to say that, “This is how I’ve arrived at my plots a number of times.”
Are there other ways to frame a story and develop a plot?
Yes. And I’d like to talk about one of them.
But first you may think that what I’m about to say applies only to outliners and not to pantsers. That only outliners need to concern themselves, right off the bat, at least, with plot. But I believe pantsers will benefit from this discussion too, because oftentimes we have to start somewhere: we all need a tree on which to hang our ornaments. And what I’m going to talk about is essentially growing the tree.
I’m not going to talk about where ideas come from. But I will mention one place that’s worked for me. And truly I can’t think of a better place to get story ideas. And that’s from reading.
In conjunction with reading, you may benefit from playing the what-if game. As I’ll mention a little later I eventually developed the story-line for one of my novels, The Brothers’ Keepers, by playing this game—well, by playing the game and also by doing a boatload of research.
So let’s say you’ve come up with a basic idea for a story. One of the things I like to do next is to make sure the idea hasn’t been done to death. How do you do this? I suggest plugging a few key words of your topic into Amazon with the tag “fiction” added and see what comes up. Of course, if you want to find books for research, of the non-fiction variety, leave the fiction tag off. I can’t tell you how many important books I’ve found this way.
Once I’ve come up with a basic idea for a story, and thought a little about the main characters, I try to frame the story in two sentences. This framing of the story in two sentences is one of the most important things I’ve learned after writing two novels and reading a boatload of books on writing. I learned the technique from Dwight v. Swain, who lays it out in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer. If you don’t have this book, I strongly recommend you get a copy. It is my favorite book on writing.
Okay, so what is this two-sentence method of framing a story?
The first sentence is a statement that deals with character, situation, and objective, and the second is a question that deals with opponent and disaster. That’s all well and good, but what does this look like in practice?
It is hard to improve on Swain’s examples so I’ll start by simply relating one of his. Say you are writing a science-fiction story.
Your basic idea is that humans start growing very tall and the main character’s objective is to find out why. So your first sentence that deals with character, situation, and objective looks something like this:
Sentence 1: When humans suddenly sprout to twelve-feet tall, John Storm tries to find out why.
The first sentence of story structure is posited in the form of a statement. In it, we have the situation (humans suddenly growing tall), the character (John Storm) and the objective (trying to find out why this is happening).
The second sentence that frames the story deals with opponent and disaster and is cast in the form of a question:
Sentence 2: But can he (John Storm) defeat the traitors in high places who want to kill him in order to make the change appear to be the result of an extraterrestrial plot?
Here we have the opponent and the disaster that threatens our protagonist—namely, death.
Sentence 1: Sick of the conformity and hypocrisy that go with his high-paid job, and with a modest life income assured, Dale Boulton decides to retire ten years early, to go live on a shanty boat and poke through crumbling river ghost-towns, in fulfillment of a boyhood dream.
Sentence 2: Can he make the break successfully, when his wife, Sandra, fights him all the way and finally, threatens to have him declared incompetent?
Let’s take an example everyone is probably familiar with: The Wizard of Oz.
What would sentence one look like for this story?
Sentence 1: When a cyclone drops Dorothy into a strange new world, she seeks to return home to her farm in Kansas.
Sentence 2: Can she get the great Wizard of Oz to assist her in her efforts to return home before the Wicked Witch of the East kills her?
This may sound simple, but framing story structure in such a way, really helps.
For my novel The Brother Keepers, I started off with a fascination for the Jesuits. After a good deal of reading and research I eventually formulated and honed the two sentence story structure into something like the following:
Sentence 1: Nicholas Branson, a renegade Jesuit, is brought into an investigation to help solve the mystery of a Senator’s murder.
Sentence 2: Can he discover the truth before he’s killed by religious and political officials hell-bent on keeping the mystery a secret?
Eventually, The Brothers’ Keepers grew into a story with the following mini-synopsis:
Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, and Jesus’ purported spouse, Mary Magdalene. But what about Jesus’ siblings? What role did they play in early Christianity?
Contemporary Jesuit and renowned religious historian Nicholas Branson is about to find out…and the answer will shake the foundations of the Judeo-Christian world.
It all starts with the murder of a United States Senator in a confessional, and the discovery of a strange religious document among his possessions. At the urging of his FBI friend, Branson joins the investigation. His effort to uncover the truth behind the murder draws him into the search for an eight-hundred-year-old treasure and into a web of ecclesiastical and political intrigue.
Accompanied by a beautiful, sharp-tongued research librarian, Jessica Jones, Branson follows a trail of clues, from the peaks of the awe inspiring French Pyrenees to the caves of war-torn Afghanistan. Along the way, shadowy powerful forces trail the pair, determined to keep safe a secret buried for centuries.
How will it end? Read The Brothers’ Keepers … if you dare.
This book is largely genre fiction. Does the two-sentence farming method work in the case of literary fiction?
I have found it useful. For Conversations Among Ruins, the two sentences started out something like the following:
Sentence 1: While in detox, Daniel Stavros, a young, dual diagnosed lecturer, meets and falls in love with the cryptic Mimi Dexter, a woman who has a tattoo identical to a pendant Daniel’s mother gave him right before she died.
Sentence 2: Can Daniel maintain his job and his sanity in the face of an increasingly tempestuous and mysterious romance?
This story evolved into the following:
Conversations Among Ruins is a portrait of a descent into madness, and the potential of finding salvation there.
While in detox, Daniel Stavros, a young, dual diagnosed* professor meets and falls in love with the cryptic Mimi Dexter. But Mimi has secrets and, strangely, a tattoo identical to a pendant Daniel’s mother gave him right before she died.
Drawn together by broken pasts, they pursue a twisted, tempestuous romance. When it ends, a deteriorating Stavros seeks refuge at a mountain cabin where a series of surreal experiences brings him face to face with something he’s avoided all his life: himself.
Though miles away, Mimi’s actions run oddly parallel to Daniel’s. Will either be redeemed, or will both careen toward self-destruction?
*The term dual diagnosed refers to someone suffering from a mood disorder (e.g., depression) and chemical dependency.
Can you take your work in progress and frame it using the two sentence structure?
Next time, I’ll talk about what follows in my development process.
Please note, these tips are offered only as ideas/suggestions. The most important thing is to come up with a way that works for you.
I hope this is of some help.
All the best,
How can I tell? Well, I’ve lost interest in things from which I usually derive pleasure. I’ve come to feel that my writing efforts are futile, and that I really don’t have much to contribute, either in terms of writing tips or in the way of helpful info on dual diagnosis. I’ve been sleeping too much, and exercising too little. Basic self-care has been difficult.
I haven’t felt like reaching out much, hence my silence on here. However, this is exactly what NOT to do when depressed, so I wanted to call myself on it and get back to basics.
I’m taking steps to get better, which includes changing my anti-depressant, from Prozac to Lexapro. I’m only on day five of the change, so I haven’t felt much difference. I know it can take weeks for anti-depressants to work, but I am hopeful. That hope, coupled with the fact that I’m reaching out, I take as good signs.
Despite how I’ve felt, I’ve made progress on my writing. I’ve been working on a stage version of Conversations Among Ruins, and have completed the first draft of that. I’m also on the third draft of the sequel to The Brothers’ Keepers, so that’s moving along nicely. I’ve been aided in the latter process by my dear friend Mary Stevens, who is painstakingly editing the manuscript. (I highly recommend her as an editor; if you are in need of one, please contact me, and I’ll pass on her information.)
This in itself leads me to consider the things I am grateful for, which I like to do whenever I get depressed. I am grateful for my readers and for friends like Mary, Cynthia, Audrey, Dean, Susan, Marina, Virginia, and Kit. I’m also grateful for the members of my writing group: Chris, Tyler, Cornelia, and Julie. I’m also grateful beyond words for my girlfriend, Susan, and her family.
I’m very grateful, too, that I haven’t been tempted to drink during this depressive episode. Someone posted an article on Facebook recently that hit home. It was an excerpt from a book that looks at the connection between drinking and writing by examining the lives of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, and Tennessee Williams, among others. I intend to read the book from which the article was drawn and post about that in the not too distant future.
Depression can be an ugly thing, but there is help available. Please don’t ever be afraid to reach out for that help.
If anyone has any experiences with depression and/or Lexapro, I’d love to hear from you.