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4. The Best Craft Advice I've Ever Received
On the emotional anatomy of story
Hi everyone! Happy new year! (I say this as we are almost a month into the new year, lmfao). And happy lunar new year of the rabbit / cat! It's really good to be back. I can officially say that it's the publication year for my beloved second book, Ruby Lost and Found! I’m really excited to start talking and sharing more about it for the new year, but for now, I’m going to drop the preorder links here.
I also wanted to state that Ruby Lost and Found is a HarperCollins book, and I stand in solidarity with the HarperCollins Union, who as of today has been on strike for 55 days, and their fight for a fair contract. You can read more about the strike and ways to support them here. And as for preordering, I suggest preordering books from indie bookstores and the HarperCollins Union-affiliated Bookshop page.
What has Christina been up to?
So I took a long break between the October issue of the newsletter and the January one. I had some deadlines for Ruby, and I also started a rewrite of this book I was working on. For the last three months, I’ve been pretty immersed up to my eyeballs on it. When I get really into a project, I always take some form of a social media hiatus. All my thoughts pour into the book. I’m thinking about it on my subway commute, I’m untangling plot threads on the weekends, I’m making folders of Spotify playlist and probably fucking up my algorithm for my Wrapped, as I do year after year (sometimes when I’m working on a particular scene I listen to a song over and over again, sometimes dozens of times, and before I know it Cornfield Chase by Hans Zimmer has made it onto my top five songs of the year). But also I liked living more of an offline existence in general. I got to see my lovely friends, enjoy holiday things, read some truly incredible books, both fiction and nonfiction, and be with my family.
All this is to say, I’m glad I’m back. And I’m really excited to talk today about the single best piece of craft advice I’ve ever received.
Finding — and Keeping — the Heart of a Story
So I was talking to my friend on the subway months ago about learning and memory and how sometimes it’s hard to intentionally commit things to memory. And my friend said something that I’ve been thinking about ever since: one of the strongest ways to commit something to memory is to actually have encountered something first and unintentionally re-encounter it later on.
Which, at the time, made so much sense to me. Have you ever seen or heard something referenced, only to re-encounter it later in another in completely unrelated circumstances? Have you ever tried learning something, forgot all about it, only to learn it again years later? And then it feels like some kind of strange subliminal synchrony, a click, sort of? And then you remember it, whether you intend to or not. You don’t forget about it.
In 2014, when I was in my Writer Craft era (as in obsessively reading as many books as I could about the Art of writing), I read this book called Writing the Heart of Your Story by C.S. Lakin. The main idea of that book had been that every story has this vein through it, an idea that comes up again and again. I realize that there are many words for this: theme, motif, etc., but the word heart just sounded so apt. Every story has the surface plot — and every story has a thematic heartbeat, an idea that comes back time and time again.
My upcoming book, Ruby Lost and Found, has a plot. Ruby spends the summer with her grandmother, who is starting to forget things, as the city around them is changing due to gentrification. That’s the logline; that’s the pitch. That’s what I think of as the mind of a story. But if I were to dig into my story I would say that it’s a dissertation around the ideas of memory and home. Those ideas don’t necessarily come up every chapter or every scene. But those ideas run through the story like underlying veins. I may reference them in a particular scene, and then subtly bring it up several chapters later. That underlying current—that’s the heart.
My hope, as the writer, is for the reader to encounter and re-encounter these ideas throughout the book, in an organic way that feels like solving a puzzle. I want to make it feel like an unintentional, hard-earned discovery. Synchrony. It’s like how movie soundtracks have running iterative themes that don’t pack an emotional punch until the final scene. Some of my most rewarding experiences with books or movies or shows are when I don’t even realize the themes until I realize at the very end that I’ve been following them and picking up on them throughout the story. The storyteller has been deftly tracing it through the story all along, like Ariadne’s thread. That subtle act of recall elevates the emotional impact of a book.
This piece of writing advice has carried me a long, long way. The more I write, the more I realize that while I can have the plot of a story, I can’t start writing it without the heartbeat.
That’s all I have for now! Thank you for letting me resurface in your inboxes with a very rambly craft post :)
What’s currently on my mind:
Currently reading (and loving): The Many Fortunes of Maya by Nicole D. Collier, The House Swap by Yvette Clark, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, and Friday I’m in Love by Camryn Garrett
Currently listening to: $20 by boygenius, Oceans and Engines by NIKI, Landfill by Daughter, Love Language by Kehlani
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