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Writing Stories to Change the World

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storycon.org H1'ed 1/24/15
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Donald: Um-hum.

Rob: See I'm scheming. How can I get you talk to about writing about activism, writing about protests? How would that apply? Could it apply?

Donald: Well, you know Rob, I think when you're putting together a novel, you can really start from any place, any impulse, any idea, any topic, any character, any period of history. You can start anywhere as long as there is conflict built into, inherent conflict and you can grow a story from there. Now it starts with really creating characters, characters who are conflicted, characters who have things to do, a journey to go and building their story from there. So, is it possible to write a protest as such? Yes, of course, it is. I mean I can't think of a novel. There have been some wonderful novels about the 60s, but I can't think of one built around activism and street protests as such. I can think of a lot of plays that have been built around that, particularly in British theater history, but its perfectly possible to do that. However, in constructing a novel, what you would do is not write about protesting, you would write about a protester; a character. That's the starting point, that's the basis for any piece of novel-length fiction: a character undergoing a journey, a character who is conflicted, a character whose journey is not easy but involves a lot of complications and difficulties and change. I would really love to see the great novel about, let's say, the Kent State killings back in 1970, I think it was. I haven't seen that novel yet but hopefully some novelist is going to take us back there at that time to tell the story.

Rob: Now you have on your website a list of the kinds of novels you'd like to see. Every couple of months, it looks like, you put it up there.

Donald: Yeah, we try to brainstorm ideas just to throw out, not throw out story ideas for people to execute, although they do do that sometimes, but to get people thinking about the very premise, the very starting point for their stories and mostly what we're looking for are stories that start from something that's intriguing, unexpected or that has inherent conflict in it. As I mentioned before, those are really powerful story generators. So, when we suggest story ideas, it's not to say, "Hey, this is the story that people should write," but to get people thinking, really about how they can take their ideas and dig into them to find the conflict, to find what is unusual and to magnify it and blow it up into a better story.

Rob: If you had to tell, in an elevator, what makes novels successful. What would you say?

Donald: All novels? All fiction? I think it involves a couple of things. First of all, compelling conflicted characters and constant tension that keeps us reading every next thing on the page because the reader's in a constant state of mild apprehension about what's going to happen. You can build a quiet literary novel out of very little or you can build a big save-the-world-mile-a-minute thriller. It doesn't matter if it's going to be successful; those two things are always there, character's that we care about and care about immediately. The thing that makes a book a page turner, it's the same in literary fiction and commercial fiction, it's an element I call micro tension and it's the moment by moment, line by line tension that keeps us wondering constantly what's going to happen next even if it's in a small momentary way.

Rob: Now you have a phrase that you describe: Attention Deficit Disorder.

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