Monday, July 10, 2017

A Storyteller's Mission

Vanessa Brantley Newton giving opening keynote

This past weekend I surrounded myself with writers, artists, and masters in the craft of storytelling. The 2017 SCBWI Summer Conference held new opportunities and growth in friendships that I had never thought possible. Having begun my career as an illustrator, I had struggled to make myself fit into the genres and categories in which such work was needed. I also had stories I wanted to share and no one seemed to be writing them, so I decided to try writing them myself. 

I wrote a picture book about a little coyote that wanted to show up his sister by catching the most fish. I had made a dummy and illustrations and showed this work at the last conference I attended for critique. I revised the manuscript—it was 1250 words—but each time I worked on it, I slowly but surely lost interest. It sucked… I sucked. 

Doubt, doubt, doubt, doubt…

Then fear kicked in. 

Did I really have a story to tell? What was it exactly? It wasn't anything like the cute and humorous things that everyone wanted to publish, but I could feel it rising inside of me, like a dark swell of thunder clouds. Then I realized something. I was trying so hard to be what everyone else was telling me I should be that I was ignoring the voice inside. I needed to do what that stormy cloud was telling me to do. I needed to expose the dark turmoil that nestled inside my heart, to share the passion I had for gut-wrenching, emotional scenes and to communicate the universal themes found in folklore across the world. 

Then I sat down and wrote.

I really wrote. I spent hours, weeks, months writing. And when I finished, I was amazed. I had never completed anything longer than fifty pages before and here I had a 90,000 word novel. I knew it needed work—LOTS of work. But I knew where to look for help. I engaged with the SCBWI community, which I had long been a part of, and discovered that there were others that wrote things similar to mine. Others with similar journeys and similar passions that involved dark and stormy themes. 

So I’m all set—armed with questions and goals for the Summer Conference after revising my manuscript for the tenth time, and I’m ready to share it. Only I’m caught off guard by a deceptively simple question: what is your mission? I floundered trying to answer the question, only because there were so many things that I wanted to say and I wanted to be as honest and as truthful as I could without sounding like an idiot, or worse, a fraud. But when I think on it now, I answered in truth. It might have sounded a little corny when I said it out loud initially, like a blubbering buffoon—but I came back to it, and gave it some thought, and some more meat. 
Here it goes…

My Writing Mission:

I write because I love story. I love how it serves as a mode of communication between people, between cultures, across spheres of influence. It changes and grows with each new telling, incorporating the thoughts and souls of all who shape it, and touches the lives of all who receive it. Story is the great equalizer: heroes conquer insurmountable odds against indomitable enemies, the weak become strong, and sometimes the villain also learns a lesson and changes heart. I want my stories to impart similar messages; to inspire; to make the reader more aware of themselves and of others; to create empathy and help shed light on paths not often taken. I write for children, and those with an open heart, because they have not yet built the walls of knowledge too high around them. They can still grow.

What's your mission?

Monday, January 23, 2017

My Story: Women’s March 2017, Los Angeles

:You going tomorrow?

*strong arm*

:is that a yes? lol

Rain cleared away the city’s grime, leaving sparkling pavement and clear blue skies. The crisp air buzzed with excitement. At the metro station, lines stretched around the block with women and men, girls and boys, toddlers and infants, elderly and handicapped. We were all heading east towards the heart of the city, to the gathering of promise, to the march for women.

I was nervous. I had never participated in a rally before, let alone an international march. The news and friends on social media warned of the dangers of participation: confusion, violence, injury, arrest…  But none of these fears could hold back the pure energy—the will—to fight against a deeper and darker fear of uninhibited power wielding its mighty sword of hatred and ignorance.

We mounted the platform, waiting for the train, and soon it grew even clearer that not only were people lining up at our station but at stations along the entire route. People packed inside each train like candies inside a piƱata, waiting to burst at the right moment. The march had already started.

“Critical mass,” my friend said.

Better to board the first open train, even if it is going the opposite direction. We rode to the end of the line and back again. People at the train stops stared, gaping in wonder at the sheer volume of individuals packed inside the silver tube. Crowds cheered and chanted:

“Power to the people, power to the people right on!”

Energy spilled out into the streets at each stop. More people pushed onto the train when space permitted. Growing hot and anxious, we exited two stops early.

At the heart of the city it was strangely quiet. Hardly a soul on the streets and no more sound than the usual traffic. Nerves on edge, senses tingling, we walked four blocks and to the right. Suddenly, we saw them: signs and banners, pink hats and costumes, women and men marching together toward city hall. The crowd grew thicker, drawing itself around us as we joined the masses.

We march.

Without a sign, we walked, tense and alert. We listen as pockets of cheers and chanting carry through the people like a wave, pushing us on to our destination. We clapped and shouted, carrying the message forward. We will not be silent. We will not lay down our liberties. We will resist. We will fight.

Low men fly high in the air, waving a banner announcing their support of our enemy. Coward. Face the ones you so wish to silence! Face us whom you wish to oppress, to smite with your arrogance and greed! They fly away and the phoenix rises high before us, guiding us to the center, the beating heart of the city, to the ocean of love and unity which brought us here.

At last, we pass the glittering windows of a great building and hear the siren call of our kindred. We stop and drink in the hopeful energy surrounding the stage at the front of city hall. A beacon in the sea of doubt overshadowing the nation—the world. Women of courage and strength mount the platform and call for us to battle, to be strong, and to spread the word of love and unity which is the only way to defeat violence, to banish hatred, to overcome evil. Like rays of the sun, their words warm our hearts and uplift our spirits. Our fears have been vanquished.

We will prevail.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What is story?

According to the dictionary, a story is a "narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse that is designed to interest, amuse or instruct a listener or reader." It is essentially a series of events told from a point of view and where the audience also plays a role in its function. A story cannot be a story without these key ingredients, though the variety of these ingredients are what makes the world of story a vast and beautiful one. 

When "story" is broken down for study by writers and readers of story, the elements are often described as follows: Point-Of-View (Narrator), Character, and Plot. Now, there is much more to the study of narrative that I'm not including here, like theme and symbolism and use of language, but I want to focus on these three items because they are what remains essential to story. Without any one of the three, Point-Of-View, Character(s) or Plot, the story or the root of the narrative begins to fall apart. 

In order for the listener or reader to understand the story being told, they have to be introduced to the character or characters by the narrator. It is also the narrator's responsibility to build the world that the characters live in and possibly drop some helpful hints to the audience as to why things are the way they are in this story's world. So the writer's first task is to determine the best narrative voice that will tell the story while they write. Why must it be the best? Because to fall short in this aspect allows for misunderstanding and misinterpretation, which will inevitably disengage the audience from the story.

Some writers will argue that story is all about the character. That everything should be subservient to the character - particularly a character who is also the narrator - and that the plot should follow. Characters help to set the mood of the story, especially if they have a heavy role as a narrator, and they also help the reader to understand and become part of the story as a sort of empathetic viewer. This is the great magic of story and indeed the part that most readers fall in love with in the beginning. Characters can actually transform our view of our own world in this way. However, if the character does nothing but chat with other characters and show the reader around the elaborate set of their "world," the story always falls flat. Things must happen in order to move the narrative and thereby give the story meaning.

This is where plot comes into play. Stories that lack plot, or rather fall short in its development, are often very poor in other aspects like narrative voice and character development. Plot is the driving force behind story. It is the reason why the characters have a story to begin with - otherwise they're just little cardboard cut-outs bouncing along a painted background (probably not even bouncing for that matter). Without plot, a character has no where to go and nothing to do. Which doesn't sound like a very exciting thing to read. Plot therefore gives the character a goal to accomplish, somewhere where they have to end up in the end. Plot can be simple or complicated, borrowed or blended, but it should always have a beginning, middle and an end. It doesn't have to start at the true beginning and it doesn't have to follow any rules. It's life - things happen

The most beautiful and meaningful stories have solid roots in these three aspects of narrative. They do not get caught up in their own clever use of language or descriptions of character or scenery. All of that is just extra bits added on to entice a demographic to pick up a book - not to tell a story. A good story is universal in its understanding, and a great story will always stand the test of time.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Follow Your Bliss

I have this pinned to a board that sits in front of my desk. It spoke to me. It said, you have to find what you like. You have to find it, grab it, and eat, sleep and dream it. 

The funny thing about bliss is that it can be anything, and to me it meant one thing and one thing only: story. I love everything involving story. I love words and pictures and music and dancing. All of which can tell a story, and in a myriad of different ways. 

The other part about bliss is that it needs to be something that comes easy, like breathing. Something that you don't have to spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about for it to happen. That's where I came back to writing. It was honestly my first love. Even before art and learning how to draw and paint. I remember when I was in third or fourth grade I started keeping a journal after I received a beautiful hardcover diary with a lock on it for Christmas. I wrote in it almost everyday, and over the years I have filled tomes which now have been carefully packed away in a large storage container.

After looking at this quote everyday for a least a month, it dawned on me... I have to write. I'd written a few short stories and a slew of half-started picture book texts over the years since graduating college, but I felt like I hadn't really written. Nothing I had done was something I still loved once I'd finished it - some of them I actually hated and prefer never to resurrect their skeletal remains. So not only did I have to write, but I had to write something I wanted to read. I needed to write a fantasy story. So I did. I sat down and wrote, then wrote some more, then the whole thing came pouring out of me over the course of a month or so. Then I was done - or so I thought. 

So, here is where I begin my journey as a writer and an aspiring author. I hope one day the random things I'll post here may be of some encouragement to future authors and writers and artist storytellers of the world.