Talking About Story

This week, I'm making a presentation at Word Lab, an after-school writing center for students. I'm a proud volunteer of the Young Writers Program, and this is one of the places where I spend my time. I thought I would share what I plan to say with you:

Today, I'm here to talk about story, specifically how to figure out what you want to write. So, first let's talk about what makes up a story. In a story, a main character has a dream. She has internal and external obstacles that make it difficult to achieve that goal. The character will struggle, try different tactics, and eventually succeed or fail at what she wanted to do.

When I sat down to write my first book, Joy Returns!, I knew that music had to be a part of it because music is very important to me, and if I was going to spend a lot of time on a project, I wanted to be writing about something that I loved. So, how would music fit into my story? I thought about when I was young and played piano and how magical it felt to sit down at that bench, put my hands on the keyboard, and start to play. I wanted to try to recapture that on paper. So, in real life, after studying piano for several years, my family moved to California, and I stopped playing. If I was writing an essay or a memoir about that time, I would write about that experience. But I want to write fiction. So I need to make things up. In my book, the girl continue to play the piano.That's my happy ending. But I need complications in my story. I need obstacles. I thought about, when I was young, what would have made life horrible? If my father had died, it would have been devastating. So, in Joy Returns!, the girl's father dies right before the story begins. The mother is overwhelmed. The grandmother insists that the mother is an unfit parent, and the girl should live with her. In the book, the girl has to figure out how to live in a world that has turned upside-down. Can music be a force to lift her out of her despair and find happiness again?

While I was writing Joy Returns!, I made a decision. I realized that I would always need to find time to write and that I always wanted to write books. On days where I couldn't write, I felt like I was stranded in the middle of the desert without any water. So after I wrote Joy Returns!, I wondered what I would write next, and I promptly had a dream. I dreamed an entire adult murder mystery. Everything was already organized in chapters. In the middle of the night, I woke up and wondered if I should write it down. “No,” I thought, “I'm tired. I will remember this in the morning. It's engraved in my soul.”

When I woke up the next morning, all I could remember was that I had dreamed an adult mystery novel, and that it had featured horses. I first resolved to try in the future to always write down my ideas as soon as possible. And then I thought about horses. When I was young and playing music, I also lived near a stable and rode horses. I started thinking about them—first their names, then their looks, then their personalities, and then . . . here is the crazy part. I started imagining their voices, how they would sound, what they would say, how they felt about their lives.

I tried to stop that imagining. It felt too weird to write about talking horses. But once they started, the horses wouldn't stop talking. So I wrote Kate and the Horses, a story about a girl who had a knack for saying and doing the wrong things and could not make friends, even though that was what she wanted most in the whole world, who was bullied and teased and misunderstood until some horses started talking to her and changed her life.

I hope I have given you some ideas on ways to write and think about stories. I'm going to end with a short reading, the first chapter from Kate and the Horses. Thank you. [Note: Blog readers can read that first chapter in the Amazon sample.]