November 16, 2014

WRITING ADVICE: What Went Right With "Dear Hunter" (CICADA January/February 2000) Guy Stewart #5

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote to the left will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

This one is perhaps the easiest one to comment on because the idea, growth, and eventual publication of the story are still clear in my mind.

 In synopsis, the story was about a young hunter in northern Minnesota who is with a friend deer hunting when he accidentally shoots a girl who is horseback riding. He refuses to acknowledge the incident emotionally and eventually breaks down. The victim forgives him publicly through a letter to the editor of the local paper that begins, “Dear Hunter”…

Yeah, I know, brilliant!

The story started as a real incident. My college roommate was related to one of the principals in the incident. When he got the phone call, his face drained of all color. I’d never seen that happen to anyone before or after that day. As the details of the incident came out, they never really arranged themselves for a story idea; they were mostly what I’d call “life experiences”.

I don’t know what initially started the story, but by the late 1990’s I’d had some writing success – breaking into both my favorite magazine, as well as the Lexus of children’s magazines, and I actually had a BOOK out!

So I tried something different. Using the incident my roommate had experienced as a foundation, I threw in a Vietnamese kid named Duy who’d been adopted; his best friend; and then I sent them hunting.

I quickly found out that because I’d never been deer hunting, I had absolutely no idea what I was writing about. I called my brother, pumped him for information, then write the story.

My college training was in education, so I’d seen students who’d survived traumatic situations. I put that experience into the story as well. I was well aware of how ineffective trying to ignore a traumatic incident could be; but I also couldn’t have an adult “figure out Duy’s problem”. Writing fiction for young adults and children – and other adults – has to be about THEM figuring out the answers. But my main character’s solution to the accident wasn’t working. He was starting to fall apart.

The problem was that I couldn’t have him walk into a counselor’s office and tell his story and be all better. While it was true that I needed to give him the tools to solve the problem, they needed to come from his peers, not his teachers, parents, or school counselor (I’m all three of those now).

When I was finished, I sent the story off to the editor of CRICKET and CICADA magazines – and she fired it back with comments about the legal aspects of the incident!

How the heck was I supposed to know? *mutter, mutter, mutter*

So I called a very old friend who was a deputy sheriff of a county north of the city I live in and he was very capable and willing to tell me exactly what would happen in such a case. I wrote the details in – fascinated despite myself – and sent it back. The editor accepted it and it was published. The check I got was...HUGE.

The upshot of this essay though is that my success can be boiled down to a very few things:

  1. The story, while based on a real life incident was not simply a recounting of the incident but used it AS A JUMPING OFF POINT. Virginia Wolff said, “Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.
  2. I did more research for “Dear Hunter” than I usually do for my essays.
  3. The main character had to solve his own problem – though he can have non-adult/authority figure help.
  4. Lastly, something I learned recently from the editor at CICADA: focus on one incident in a short story, then explore the ramifications of that ONE thing.

I have another story with CICADA’s editor now. We’ll see if I’ve effectively taken my own advice!

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