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If It’s Readers You Want, Start Here

I had the rare and exciting opportunity last Sunday to hear powerful writing tips from Jason Roberts, author of A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler. He wasn’t there to sell books, although we coaxed him into staying around afterwards so we could purchase A Sense of the World from Book Passage and get his autograph. We have Tanya Egan Gibson, talented writer, author, and program chair for California Writers Club-Marin, to thank for coaxing him out of hiding, where he’s immersed in his next book.

While deeply serious about the craft of writing creative narrative for fiction and nonfiction, I’d have to say Roberts is an entertainer in disguise. His compelling tips, “From Silk Thread to Steel Cable,” were comprised of seven points—well, as he went along, he added another, so now there were eight—points he said he wished he’d learned before he discovered them for himself throughout years of writing. I’m sure he has a few more up his sleeve, and on Sunday he had an audience glued to his every word, anxious to hear any number of tips he took the time to graciously give his fellow writers—the crowd was enthralled.

I’m thinking perhaps he was trying this stuff out on us for our reaction prior to proposing a book on what he deems the narrative process. If he’s not planning to write such a book, he should. We’d all have bought it yesterday. Did I mention Roberts is a very clever fellow? Tricky even? And definitely handsome.

Next came the tricky part for me in trying to give you a taste of what I took away from his brilliant talk. He started off with a bang telling us, “Get over yourself. Don’t over write your prose.” Great reminder …” Get over myself” sticky note already up.

The following writing tips are my brief takes on a few of Roberts’ points. I am looking at them in relationship to the character grabbing, short memoirs that I encourage people to write. These true tales capture the character and spirit of people significant in their lives and often serve as the writers’ building blocks to longer works.

1. “Cast your characters” by literally giving each character a role in your story. It is your job to see that your characters do something, rather than merely mentioning them. Ask yourself questions about each one of them: Why is this person in my story? Is this guy important to the story? Does the story work better without an appearance from this woman? If you think certain characters are not worth giving an active role, or if they seem to get in the way of the narrative, get rid of them. Everyone needs a reason for being, right? Well, give them that reason for being, or out they go.

Each character, however, doesn’t need a balanced role—use or manipulate a character for a desired effect, and don’t make excuses for him. For example, you mention your dad in a story you’re writing about your mother. For the story to make sense, you need to depict him as a jerk, which is only one aspect of his character. Since this story isn’t about him, it’s not necessary or appropriate to show the reader his good side.

Roberts goes on to say, “You can clash with your characters if need be,” and “Don’t be too enamored of a character.” The resulting tension from a clash will give your work a desirable edge. And if you’re overly absorbed in one of your characters, you leave little to the readers’ imagination. Mystery will give your audience the opportunity to read something into the characters—to see them as similar to people they know, including themselves. Moreover, when you don’t fully clothe your characters, they carry a universal appeal, which is what you need to achieve, if you want to be widely read.

2. If it’s readers you want, remember “Readers are selfish,” so you have to give them what they need. Connection. They must feel a link or a tie between themselves and the characters when they read your story or they will simply close the book or turn off the screen, discarding the work that’s been your driving passion. So decide what you want your readers to feel before you write.

This sounds simple, but I know from my experience holding “Give the Gift of Story” workshops that many people, when they begin to write a story, have no idea what they want others to feel. And has the idea about “how to touch others” occurred to them prior to starting their writing process? Perhaps not, since they often say they don’t even know what or how they, themselves, feel until the words start to flow. So, from here on out, I’ll put the horse before the cart and ask writers to spend time on what they want their readers to feel and what devices they can use to bring about that desired effect .

3. “The past is a foreign country.” Capture the Zeitgeist. To successfully write creative narrative, your story must ring true with the spirit of the time in which the story takes place. In order to do this, you need to look at each place and period of time as having a personality uniquely its own. The Zeitgeist will have enormously influenced the hearts and minds and actions of your characters. Write this flavor of the times into your story to add depth and color, but also as a frame of reference as your readers get comfortable with your casts of characters.

Roberts reminded us, “You’re always writing about time.” On that note, I’ll stop now at a time and place where I know it’s up to us as writers to hone our craft with a spirit that craves more.

Thank you, Jason Roberts, for allowing me to share with my readers a bit of what I gleaned from your talk, even though you didn’t know what I was going to write. That’s trust, and I hope I have given them a connection to you, and that my rendition of and elaboration on a few of your points didn’t completely warp your intended meaning. 

Now write like you’ve never written before as you capture the character and spirit of your mother or another significant person in your life. So they will always be remembered, write a bio-vignette and become a Tell Tale Soul.