Today I’m delighted to welcome a wonderful writer and friend, Shelli Johnson. Shelli is the author of the award-winning novel Small as a Mustard Seed, and is sharing her favorite writing advice: ‘Trust the story.’
‘Trust the story.
WHO SAID IT?
Patricia Ann McNair, creative writing professor.
The story knows what it wants to be. You just need to get out of the way ~ with your thoughts on what it should be or what you want it to be, trying to make it sound a certain way, wanting it to convey a certain message or have a certain moral ~ so it can tell itself. If you don’t trust the story, you won’t let it be what it wants, which is to get messy & go off on tangents & look like a hodge-podge of ideas until, gloriously, it comes together as a novel in the end. You have to be willing to let your writing grow naturally, even if that ends up being pages and chapters or even half a novel that you later end up cutting out. You have to do that, otherwise you break the story’s magic.
HOW IT CHANGED MY WRITING:
I got out of the way and stopped trying to control or funnel or impose my agenda. I stopped giving bits of my opinion or forcing traits on my characters or being frustrated that the story wasn’t fitting into the frame I had made for it. Instead, I started letting the story do what it wanted.
I also decided that the best stories are the ones where the writer drops the characters into a situation & lets them figure it out, where it isn’t planned, where shocking things happen that the writer doesn’t see coming because that means the readers won’t see it coming either. That’s what happened with my novel, SMALL AS A MUSTARD SEED.
I was writing about the main characters ~ sisters: Ann Marie, the older one, and Jolene, the younger ~ for about 4 months, both of them as adult women. The story wasn’t really going anywhere and then one morning at about 2 a.m., I was in my little attic writing room when Ann Marie showed up as a 10-year-old in a barn, scared out of her mind, her father with a gun to his head & threatening to pull the trigger. That scene came out of nowhere & I let it play out. In that moment, I trusted the story and let the characters do whatever they were going to do while I just wrote it down. It ended up being the first chapter of the book. Once I got that idea, once I got out of the way and let the story tell itself, the rest of the novel simply came along with it.
You can read that opening scene, the one that I trusted to do what it wanted, right here.
The funny thing is that once I started trusting the story, once I just wrote down everything as it came, I also started trusting myself to tell it.
Do you trust the story when you write?
Shelli Johnson worked as a sports journalist and an editor for many years before finally following her passion and pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing. Publishers Weekly called her award-winning novel, Small as a Mustard Seed, ‘an intense & heartbreaking story of the fallout of war.’ It’s available now as an ebook.
About Small as a Mustard Seed
As a child in 1960s rural Ohio, Ann Marie Adler finds herself caught between her father, Frank, a veteran who survived the war in Korea but with devastating post-traumatic stress, and her mother, Adele, who is blindsided by the mental illness that accompanied him home. In a series of escalating dangerous episodes, Frank confuses reality with soul-searing memories, believing he’s still a soldier fighting for his life in battle-torn Korea. During the delusions, Ann Marie and her younger sister, Jolene, become the enemy, which leaves them fearing for their lives. Unable to fully protect her daughters, Adele scrambles to keep order while her husband’s threatening and unpredictable outbursts slowly tear the family apart.