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The Writing Life: The big ‘what-ifs’ of life

April 4, 2014
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville News

This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

Where do the ideas for a short story or novel come from?

For a lot of writers, it's a matter of 'what if'.

What if I had enlisted in the Marines instead of going to college during the Vietnam War.

What if I had gone to college instead of enlisting in the Marines during the Vietnam War.

While both scenarios offer totally different answers, it's the what if that provides the fictive stance, the opportunity to imagine a world that doesn't really exist - but could.

What if I had married ____ instead of ____. How would my life be different.

What if I had gone along with my friends when they headed out for the Coast in '69 - and never came back. Would I have stayed in Frisco too? If I had, what would my life have been like.

What if I had taken that job in Chicago, or New York or Philadelphia instead of settling for something closer to home.

What if I had gone to college at that Ivy League school instead of State.

It's fictive realities such as these that spark the imagination, that set us going, that create a story with characters so vivid and lifelike that after a time the writer sits back with pen or pencil in hand and records the events like a movie as the characters carry out their roles.

What about plot?

Good question.

Traditional creative writing classes once taught that every story follows a plot something like this:

* Conflict. This arises between two characters who have innate differences. They could have different religions, be of different cultures or have totally different values. And it's those differences that inevitably bring them into conflict.

* Rising action. Someone once described this as a person digging a ditch and the dirt starts falling on him. The faster he digs, the faster the dirt falls, so he's virtually digging his own grave. If you've seen the classic Robin Williams Movie Dead Poets Society and remember how Neil Perry gets in hot water with his father, you get the idea. This movie also probably has one of the tightest plots of any film ever produced.

* Climax. This is the point of no return. The apex of the story, not to be confused with moments of tension along the way.

* Denouement. This is the fallout or falling action from the climax. The Titanic hit the iceberg and sank is the climax. The falling action is how people survive - by helping each other or by stealing another person's life preserver.

* Climax. Often thematic in nature, this is the "lesson" we get at the end of the story or novel or movie. It's what we take home with us. When someone asks us what kind of movie or book it was, this is what we tell them.

So are plots still done this way?

Increasingly, no. MFA (master's of fine arts) writing programs pretty much universally urge students to look for a story arc - a more subtle and less predictable structure than what a lot of traditional stories had. That isn't to say that some of the classics didn't have their fair share of twists and turns. A Tale of Two Cities has more bends at the end than a drunken snake.

The aim of the story arc - as compared to the more traditional five-point plot technique - is to have a character-driven rather than a plot-driven story. Sure, it's a good idea maybe to take some notes to figure out where the story is going. But don't be so beholden to them that the story becomes predictable.

It's far better to put those two divergent personalities together and watch them fight it out. And make them fight. Don't fall in love with your characters to the point that you make life easy for them.

How do I put tension into my story?

Good question. And one that a lot of writers struggle with every day.

In his seminal book on writing, The Art of Fiction, the late John Gardner gave students an exercise in which they would describe a scene or setting just before someone found a person murdered. By describing the stillness, the barking dog that was normally docile, the upturned planter on the normally immaculate porch, the writer sets the reader on edge.

David Rhodes did just exactly that with his main character in Rock Island Line who comes home to find his young wife murdered. It's a scene that pinches your soul with its realism.

I don't have time or money to go to college and take writing classes.

That's no excuse. Excellent online creative writing classes are available through

Following are some of the courses offered:

* Beginning Writer's Workshop.

* Write Fiction Like a Pro.

* Romance Writing.

* Writing for Children.

* Writeriffic: Creativity Training for Writers.

* Advanced Fiction Writing.

* Write Your Life Story.

* Mystery Writing.

Classes start every month and cost only $100. There are 12 lessons, two offered each week, and you have a two-week grace period to complete the course.

These courses are appropriate for writers of all levels. You get not only excellent writing suggestions from the instructor. You also get an excellent list of suggested texts and personal feedback from the instructor and fellow students. This is the best deal I've ever seen on a writing course.

Iowa Summer Writing Festival

The new catalogue is out on the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City.

Associated with the internationally famous Iowa Writers Workshop, the Iowa Summer Writing Festival has an open-admissions policy for its myriad workshops offered in June and July.

Workshops are available in:

* Fiction.

* Poetry.

* Nonfiction.

* Playwriting.

* New Media.

* Memoir.

* Short Story.

* Novel.

* Multi-Genre or Genre-Bending.

* Essay.

Weekend workshops are $305 while weeklong workshops are $590, not counting food and lodging. That might sound a little steep, but not if you consider that you're taking a workshop from world-class instructors at the world epicenter of creative writing training (yes, it's Iowa City).

For more information, see:

Michael Tidemann's short stories appear in current issues of and Struggle magazine. His author page is available at:



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