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I encourage my writing students to create a story board before starting their novels. I stole the idea from Walt Disney, who created a visual story board for the animated cartoon movie Snow White. I think is was something like a half mile long. This isn’t exactly what I do, not having half a mile of wall space.
I use one large card for each scene. Each card indicates the names of the characters in the scene and, very briefly, what happens in each scene. The cards look something like this:
The story board is a form of visual plotting. You can see how the story progresses. You can see where you might need more development, where scenes are missing, where you might need a previous scene to make a later scene make sense, and where you might need to delete a scene because it doesn’t advance the story. It gives you new ideas for more scenes and new directions for the story.
The story board creates a structure for your novel, so that when you start writing, you know where you’re going and how to get there. Starting off with that structure burned into your head saves a hell of a lot of time, cuts down the chances of getting writer’s block and makes it possible to get back into the writing if you’re away from it for a while. It also allows you to put together a realistic writing schedule because you can see what has to be done and the scope of what has to be done.
All this said, there may come a time when the story itself takes over, when the actual writing reaches a point where the story board doesn’t make any sense and you just have to write.
OK, the blood-sucking editor of the Twisted Tails anthologies, J, just said, “But Biff, you spent all that time sweating and suffering over a story board…and then…and then…you have nothing. Ha ha!”
And the fox said, “Ha ha!”
“Hey fox,” I said. “Guess how J writes a novel?”
“With brilliance, insight and feeling,” said the fox.
“Thanks, fox,” said J, smiling like a self-satisfied Canadian, who’s actually an American living in New Mexico.
“No!” I said. “He sleeps. Yes, he goes to sleep with a laptop in his lap and dreams. And while he’s dreaming, he records the dream and when he wakes up…presto…novel finished. And perfectly formatted.”
Just as J and the fox were about to say nasty things about me, I ran into my bedroom and crawled under my bed with my desktop computer. I can hear them shuffling around my apartment looking for me, but I know they’re afraid to look under my bed, fearing whatever stuff a writer hides under his bed. Like the stuff I got from my stag party about thirty years ago. I won’t get into details that might even scare me.
So yes, this just happened to me. I had the story board completed for my next novel, the details of which I won’t get into because they might even scare me. I estimated a short novel of about 60,000 words. I had everything worked out, plotted, carded, and on the wall at my studio.
But, as I approached the 60,000 word mark, things started to happen. The characters started doing things that I hadn’t planned. The story line started finding new paths that wandered far away from the story board. Tomorrow, I’m going to break the 80,000 word mark…and I’ll be nowhere near finished.
So, am I sorry I bothered putting all that time and effort into a story board?
Now, I should mention one other thing. I created that story board three years ago. Then, I took three years off to study photography. I came back to the novel a few months ago. I had the story board to come back to for re-orientation. But more important, I had a structure in my head that had three years to simmer and evolve. I dumped the opening chapter for something that, after three years of second thought, worked much better, and then continued with the original plan.
But, like I said, around 60,000 words things started to get out of hand.
I think J and the fox are looking for me in my refrigerator, and eating everything in it as they look. I didn’t know foxes ate avocadoes. I didn’t know editors ate.
But get this. It’s working. Each day when I start to write, the words are gushing out. New ideas and new directions are falling into the manuscript line inspired rain.
The fox said, “Did someone just say ‘inspired rain’?”
“That sounds like something dumb that Biff would say,” said J. “He’s still here. The refrigerator is empty. Let’s find him.”
So I have to make this fast. The story board gives you a structure to start with. It organizes your brain, and your creative instincts, around that structure. And once you have that structure, you can toss it when the story goes its own way. Without the structure to begin with, you would never have gotten to that point where the story would have taken off on its own.
Now, having said all that, there are writers who never use a story board. I mean, some writers just all asleep with a laptop in their laps. The story board is meant for people like me…busy people with fulltime jobs and myriad other things to do.
If you’re not writing fulltime…take the time to do a story board, especially if it’s your first novel. Get that structure in your head and, if the time comes, dump it and just let your story take you where it will go.
“Hey J,” said the fox. “Biff’s under his bed. And…holy shit look at the stuff…oh…the stuff!
there is a wind
tunneling through the leaves and grass and
circulation vents of houses
where wasps hide their nests
it carpets street intersections
and lifts this morning’s newspapers
into dance with dust and moonlight
it burrows under my scalp and
scatters my thoughts and memories
into the clear dark night
OK…I think I’ve established that I hate winter. I hate the snow, the cold…et al…infinitely. All of that…the cold, the lack of smell, the lack of abundant color…the things you can physically see, smell and feel…are just one bottomless crater in my feelings about winter.
“So, Biff,” said the fox, “what else chills you about winter?”
“Good, one, fox,” said J, the notorious blood-sucking editor, as he laughed.
Oh shit. They’re back. I can’t even wallow in self pity by myself. And the fox was wearing a fox fur coat. “Oh, come on, fox,” I said. “You’re definitely related to that coat on some level.”
“I like to keep my ancestors close,” said the fox through a terrifying smile. If you’ve never seen a fox smile…don’t.
So, Biff,” said J, “I’m working on another anthology.”
Shit, I thought, more sleepless nights. More calls in the dead of the darkness: “Write, Biff, write. Need stories. Need your pain. Need your suffering.”
This is how editors talk to writers…even the editors that write.
“A…another…anthology?” I mumbled, lips quaking, sweat rolling.
“Yep,” said J. “It’s going to be a Twisted Tails anthology. I’m calling it Twisted Tails: The Ultimate Pain.”
“I like it,” said the fox. “It has a pizzazz ring to it. Does Biff get to suffer?”
“He sure does,” said J. “But that’s OK. Biff likes to suffer. It gives him an excuse to wallow in self pity. Right, Biff?”
I felt like a fly caught between a steaming pile of shit and a Snickers bar. But I wasn’t going to let the sinister editor get the best of me. “I wallow…therefore I am!” I blurted. Wondering as the words came out of my mouth…wtf.
The fox and J laughed for hours. And hours. Into days and nights and weeks. They laughed for weeks as I wallowed. “You guys almost finished?” I said.
They immediately stopped laughing and stared at me, straight-faced. “You don’t like the sound of laughter?” said J.
“You hate laughter?” said the fox.
I wasn’t taking any more of this shit. “CAN WE GET BACK TO WINTER?” I suggested.
The fox and J looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and said together, “OK, Biff, winter.”
I took a deep breath, composed myself, took another deep breath, composed myself some more and said, “It’s like death.”
Simultaneously, the fox and J yawned.
“C’mon guys,” I said. “Look around! Everything’s covered in a shroud of snow. A shroud! There’s no smell, no warmth…nobody’s wearing shorts and t-shirts. No sandals. The beaches are closed. The swimming pools are empty. The outdoor patios for every bar and coffee shop in town are closed. As far as I can see, there’s not a single happy blade of grass. Winter is death and death is winter and all I want to do is wallow in self pity and cry for every blade of grass buried under a shroud of snow. And I want to put on shorts and sandals and a t-shirt, curl up under my bed and wait for spring.”
“Whoa,” said J. “That was good wallow, Biff. Are those tears in your eyes?
“Yep,” said the fox. “Biff’s crying. Ah…Biff…did we make you cry?”
They laughed again. For days and weeks. Laughed as a tsunami of tears washed over my face. “And my money tree died,” I said.
The fox and J looked at my dead money tree, browned with death and wondering, “Wtf?” And they laughed some more.
OK, I’m thinking that some of you reading this are photographers at one stage or another. I’m at that other stage…wtfai? But I’ve cleaned enough dust spots off images so that I felt like my life was cleaning dust spots off images.
So…I should know better.
“Shame on you, Biff,” said the fox.
“Shame,” said J. As if one tormentor wasn’t enough.
“Biff,” said the fox, “what is the first rule for getting nice shots of…anything?”
“You do know the answer to that, don’t you, Biff,” said J. “And I’ll be checking the formatting of your answer,” said J, the fucking editor.
“OK,” I said. “You’ve got me. “I should have cleaned my lens before every…every single…shot.”
“Why’s that, Biff?” said the fox.
“Why, Biff, why?” said the insidious editor as he enjoyed every second of my discomfort.
“Because,” I said, “because…because…it was windy. It was windy and the wind was blowing all kinds of shit onto my lens. Shit like…dust spots!”
I shrieked. I wept. I wrapped myself into a fetal position and cried for hours. I experienced the first time I had sex and didn’t realize until the next day that I ejaculated pre-maturely and couldn’t think of a single apology that might sound like it was coming from a sane person.
I saw the day that JFK was assassinated. I was at school in Winnipeg. I was in English class. Everybody had already heard about it. There were students in the halls, crying. Students hugging each other. Everyone…feeling a deep sense of loss.
Our teacher stood at the front of the class. I forget her name now, but she was kind of…prissy. That was the word we would have used at the time. But she was a good person and made the burden of having to have an English class part of the curriculum into something that wasn’t as painful as it should have been. She could teach. And she loved to teach. She could make an adverbial sound sexy.
But, maybe she underestimated her students’ intelligence.
She stood before us and she said, “Has everyone heard the sensational news?
We balked. Sensational? Sensational news? JFK is dead and this is SENSATIONAL?
The PA came on with instructions for everyone to go home while she tried to explain what she meant. Students packed books and pens away, not listening to her. And she seemed so helpless as she stood there trying to get people who had already judged to understand. She was just as distraught as everyone else.
“You should have told her that, Biff,” said the fox.
“I thought I knew you, Biff,” said J, “But I think I’m going to have to turn the torment levels up a bit.”
“One of those moments, guys,” I said, “that you decide…you’re never going to do that again.”
Strange to think back all those years and remember that the US had a president who was loved and respected around the world because he had a vision that included the whole world. And when he died, there were tears around the world.
And so…when you’re taking pics outdoors and there’s any kind of wind…I mean, even a puff…get that micro cloth or that lens pen out, and keep those lenses clean.
About the photograph…yeah…I could have spent a while removing the dust spots…but there are some areas that wouldn’t be easy. Cleaning the lens would have been much easier. And it takes just a few seconds.
Where I live (about a mile or so from where the earth drops off into infinite chaos, where elephants carry worlds on their backs), winter lasts forever. In any given year, winter is at least 17 months long. Usually longer.
That’s 17+ months of air stripped of fragrance, devoid of the smell of living things like plants and bushes. Devoid of the dense sound of buds growing on sap filled branches. Even the wind sounds different as it rushes through snow-straddled fields and barren forests. The cold bites through sunlight and freezes the cheeks.
Now, I’m not going to go off on another “I hate winter” tirade (though I do hate winter) (very much) (I really do) but, instead, I want to pay homage to the color green. Yes, we do get green here in the winter in the form of evergreen trees and green buildings and green cars and trucks and buses and signs and green eyes. But there are no green leaves, no green grass, no green bushes.
Oops…am I tirading again? Sorry.
We get trickles of green seeping out from snow-capped evergreens, but never that resplendent barrage of green like a tsunami of color washing over the landscape. But when summer (after 17 months of winter) slides down the shute of winter and melts the snow and ice into arteries of life, the green is so intense you can feel it rubbing against your eyes and licking your nostrils.
And I think I just grossed myself out.
Let’s try that again.
The green simmers under the snowscape, sucking the life and nutrients out of the white stuff until it crumples and falls into the bowels of summer.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to make it annoyingly clear that I hate winter. I know I’ve made promises to people that I’ll try to get along with winter…and I have. I’ve actually gotten out of bed a few times. Like right now. I put on clothes and buried myself in a winter parka. I went into the the parking lot, into the frigid January daylight which, as soon as I stepped outdoors, turned to overcast skies, and a sub-zero wind that would lay a membrane of frost around Hell whipped out of the frozen air.
“Hey, Biff,” said the fox. “Like my new coat?”
Damn fox was wearing a mink coat.
“You do understand that you might be related to that coat, don’t you?”
“Are you giving the fox a hard time again, Biff?”
I looked behind me. Floating in the air in lotus position and wearing a 10 gallon hat full of steaming hot water from which pipes extended to form a circular heating system around him was J. Richard Jacobs, aka J. He wore a housecoat with a ninja turtle motif.
“J,” I said. “So, that really was you the other day, sitting on my kitchen counter.”
“Yes, Biff, it was. I read your blog and realized that the fox wasn’t making your life miserable enough. It takes an editor make life truly painful for a writer…even one like you, who just barely meets the qualifications for being literate and can’t follow simple formatting standards.”
“Biff,” said the fox, “J and I talked about your plans and your purpose for being. We decided that your search for peace was…well, you know…kind of futile. I mean, look around. Nobody wants peace anymore. There’s no money in it. There’re no movies in it. And besides, people like hating each other.”
“We don’t necessarily like our conclusions,” said J, “but, yes, the fox is right…we put more effort into hating than we do into loving.”
“Hating is more profitable,” said the fox. “And it makes for better best sellers.”
“People have more fun hating than loving,” said J. “Haven’t you ever watched reality TV? It’s what we’ve become.”
“It’s all a big TV show with bad script writers,” said the fox.
“So we’ve decided that you need to focus your less than ample talents on something else,” said J.
I felt like I was between a brick wall and a thousand foot precipice with flying demons trying to bite my ass off. “OK,” I said. “I’m game. What should I focus on?”
The fox and J went silent. They looked at each other. They looked around. They looked at me. They looked back at each other. They looked up. They looked down. They looked all around. J started to speak…but looked up instead. The fox scratched his head…and looked at J.
J suddenly smiled and beamed and the pipes surrounding him tooted.
I swear…they tooted.
“I have an idea,” he said. The fox snapped to attention. I dropped my forehead into my right palm. This was going to be bad. I mean…he tooted.
“Biff,” he said, “it’s time for you to come to grips with winter.
There followed two hours of silence as J’s words tumbled around inside my head trying to fall into some kind of coherent meaning. J and the fox stared at me during this time. Just…stared.
There followed another two hours during which I chased J and the fox around the parking lot, needing desperately to beat both of them to death with my camera.
Just as I was about to bring my camera down onto the head of the mink-coated fox, a lid in the parking lot flipped down and I fell into the paving.
How did I never notice this before? I thought.
I tumbled through a tunnel under the parking lot, thinking, This is probably how Alice must have felt.
It seemed like I tumbled for several minutes that turned into several hours and turned into days and into months…and entire lifetimes flashed by my right and my left and right through my head and body as I tumbled into the openings of void after void and I thought: How did I not know this about the parking lot?
Eventually, I landed, camera in hand, on the walking bridge. So I took a couple of pictures before the other two figured out where I was and set out to torment me.
And I still hate winter.