How To Write A Book From Grandpa’s Verbal Story

Last time I was in here I challenged you to write the story inside you. Then life got in the way (again) and I was sidelined for a few weeks. This has been on my mind for  awhileOld Portrait.

Can grandpa’s story really become a book?

So while exploring the possibilities of writing the most amazing book you could ever imagine, you decide to follow my previous advice and record a story told and retold by your very most favorite story teller. This story raises the hair on your arms just thinking about it. And you’re not the only one who loves that story. The story must be told. You answer the call. You’re ready.

Now armed with your priceless recording, you carefully type the story, word for word. Again, as always, you relive Grandpa’s story. Oh the beauty of a story told by someone who knows – someone who’s been there and can share that experience to the extent that you laugh, cry, or look over your shoulder in terror. You wrap yourself in every word of the story teller. You feel what he feels and see what he sees. Even after you finish the story, even after you proofread, his words ring in your ears. It’s life altering.

And you will be famous.

Until you go out on that slender, brittle limb of chance and ask someone to read it for you.

Then you learn – unceremoniously – that your blessed words read like &#!@! But it was so beautiful when it was told. What’s the deal?

Your trusted critique partner didn’t even make it half way through your golden manuscript before laying it down. He says, “What the heck is this?”

Are there words to describe your disappointment? Your shock and disbelief?

What went wrong?

There is a difference between the words of a master story teller and the words of a master story writer.

When you listen to a story teller you can see his, or her, experiences through expressions and body language. You resonate in the pregnant pauses and the emotion in the voice. You feel the action with gestures and postures, even volume of the story teller’s voice.

But all that just doesn’t translate to a written and read story.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ve done great by getting that story on paper. You wrote it down. That’s something not everyone can do. But unless you want it to sound like a hollow knock-knock joke, you have to work on it.

Oh, yea, that four-letter word – w o r k. Sorry, you have a bunch of it in front of you. Keep the goal in mind. The story must be written, finished, shared. It must live on. If it seems to be an overwhelming task, take it in steps. Here are some guidelines to get you started. Keep in mind, this works for a thousand word flash fiction, a short story for a magazine, or a novel. It even works for a personal non-fiction book.

  1. Build the scene. Close your eyes and look around. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you feel? You can list this for your notes, but you will weave it into your story slowly. Reveal your setting to the reader in thought and dialog, not a list. Envelope your reader in the world you build, don’t drown him in a massive info dump.

Here’s an example: As the leaves rustled in the breeze and the sun settled in an orange glow behind the horizon, my heart settled in contentment, assured that everything would be better in the morning.

  1. Build the characters. You know your characters; they live in your head and in your heart. They are real, living beings even if they are totally fictional, complete with emotions, needs, and goals. But your reader knows none of this. While you are building your story world in that setting exercise, start building a character map for each person in your story. Set up an avatar and interview if you have to, but know every aspect of this person’s world. And leave room for more information as you think of it. Keep in mind, you won’t be using every bit of this, but if you don’t know this stuff, your reader won’t be able to picture it at all. As you bring your characters to life in your story, you will add this information a bit at a time. Don’t forget that the actions which work for or against these characters are what make the character, but that’s another lesson.

Here’s an example from The Black Pony. Mrs. Stanton has a minor part, but still needs to be a full character: Mrs. Stanton turned and smiled with relief. “Oh, good! I’m about to drop! Take over at the counter.” Sweat ran down her face and soaked the collar of her ruffled western blouse. Her silvery hair, combed and curled so neatly earlier, now hung in soggy strings down the sides of her face. She pulled off a stained bib style apron and handed it to Annie.

  1. Know your plot. For the way I write, this is the final exercise in this step. And like the first two, plot is dynamic and ever changing. You may need more than a few pages to map your plot before you’re finished. For some writers, this is the hardest part.

So what is Plot? It’s the story. The heartbeat of what makes this thing readable. The punchline of Grandpa’s story, revealed in stages in your book or short story. You, the writer, must know the outcome before you start. You must know the action along the way to the goal, and you must clearly describe the main obstacle to that goal. (And the main obstacle can be another character, the weather, an event in time, a mountain, or the ocean, or…)

You must keep the goal in the crosshairs of your plot and not get sidetracked by little twists and turns as you write. You must clearly target this goal within the first few lines of your story. (Remember how Grandpa says ‘I’ll never forget the day when …’ or ‘Did I ever tell you the story of …’ But again, that opening line doesn’t always read very well in a book.)

And you must keep the actions in line with the beginning and the end of your story. Sorta like shooting an arrow through the story and hitting the bull’s-eye. The action always falls along that line, with the goal always at the end.

Keep in mind, there’s more to writing in the process from the idea to the page, but now is the time to start picking the story apart and filling in the gaps.

So, do you think you can turn that fabulous verbal story in to a novel? If you have the dream, live it. When you get discouraged and feel it might be a task too big, look at a few songs which have made it to the movies, or short stories which have gone the same way. I’m thinking of the country songs, Ode to Billy Joe, and Harper Valley PTA. (I know – old!) I’m also remembering a story that came out in Readers Digest when I was just a kid. Something about a yellow ribbon that a guy hoped would be hanging on a tree when he finally got out of prison and went home. Yea, that was cool. It started a worldwide trend of ribbons!

For a great example of how a verbal story can become a written book, look at my first published book, The Black Pony available on Amazon.

Another example was written by a friend of mine about her family: Under the Almond Tree, by Linda Uleseit. Also available on Amazon.


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