Writer’s Mail Tuesdays With Story
“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” — E.L. Doctorow
Tuesday at the B & N:
Just a mini-meeting Tuesday at the bookstore. Summer must be infiltrating everyone else’s soul!
Rebecca Rettenmund read chapter 5 of The Cheese Logue, entitled “The Packers.” She says she is in the process of completely rewriting all of her chapters to weave in the personal story better with the essays. Jen liked the description of how businesses are completely dead during a Packer game. Kaitlyn wondered if the parts with Sophie would be cut – yes, they are. Carol suggested changing the fan’s cap from blue to red, because blue suggests Bear’s fan. (actually, thinking later with the two guys – one should have a green cap and one should be yellow). Kat liked how they were described as Blue and Green each time they spoke. And Terry offered the “cheese” caution – the word popped up too many times while describing the Packer gear.
Terry Hoffman read chapter 11 of The Great Tome. Rebecca felt that Ace wasn’t really sorry – it’s just something people say. Kaitlyn liked it, though, because it showed Rachel’s distrust. Jen was a little confused by the daydreaming at the start of the chapter. Carol wanted to see more physical reactions to go with the dialog. Jen thought more physical gestures throughout would create a clearer picture. Kat pointed out that Rachel might wonder what happened after she blacked out. She could have hurt Doug & not remembered it.
Who’s up next . . .
July 31: Fifth Tuesday
August 7: Lisa McDougal (chapter 4, Follow the Yellow/Ben and Krista); Pat Edwards (chapters 5-6, Our Soul); Pam Gabriel (film script, part 4, “Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt”); Judith McNeil (short story part 2, “The Man with the Broken Heart”); Aaron Boehm (film script, part 3, “Stealing from Yourself”);Jerry Peterson (chapter 7-8, Rage); Rebecca Rettenmund (chapter 10, The Cheese Logue)
August 14: Rebecca Rettenmund (Outline for The Cheese Logue); Terry Hoffman, (chapter, The Great Tome); Kat Wagner, (chapter, Revolution); Jen Wilcher, (chapter, The Hogoshiro Chronicles)
August 21: Spike Pedersen (???); Elisha McCabe (???);Andy Brown (chapter 2, Lo’s Quarter); Amber Boudreau (chapter 11, Noble); Millie Mader (chapter 37, Life on Hold); Aaron Boehm (film script, part 4, “Stealing from Yourself”); Jerry Peterson (chapter 9-11, Rage); Rebecca Rettenmund (chapter 10, The Cheese Logue).
Writers Mail editors . . .
Alicia Connolly-Lohr, is our editor this month. In August, it’s Andy Brown. Email editors directly to submit any items you think would be good for the newsletter. Volunteer newsletter needed for September.
Panera and Fifth Tuesday . . .
Do you have our next Fifth Tuesday on your schedule? July 31? Put it on now and make your reservation with Jerry Peterson. Guests are welcome, so tell Jerry who’s coming with you.
1st & 3rd hosts. The place: Panera Bread store at University Avenue and Midvale. We have the meeting room reserved. We will be ordering off the menu, so don’t bring food or beverages. (No potluck).
It will be more than our usual meet, greet, and eat 5th Tuesday. We will have both a writers’ challenge and an “added value” component. The writers’ challenge: A wish. Write a short short story, poem, essay or a mighty short film script about a wish made or a wish granted . . . your wish, somebody’s else’s wish, your dog’s wish. You’re the writer. You pick, you write, then polish. And send you mini-masterpiece to Jerry by July 27. Maximum length: 250 words. The “added value” component? We’ll tell you about that when we get closer to the date.
What are they doing now . . .
Anne Allen, formerly with our second-and-fourth group: “Most of my writing these days is for historical magazines, and I wrote a history of the Italian Workmen’s Club’s centennial (published last January).”
Clayton Gill, with our first-and-third group but inactive for the last several months: “The past six months have been a very busy time for me in my day job. In addition, a volunteer non-profit writing-editing gig has been sucking up time when I might have been writing. I thought by July that I’d be up and running again with Fishing Derby [Clayton’s young adult novel]. I’ve got to get back on that wagon!”
Great words . . .
From Wordsmith Anu Garg: femme fatale
PRONUNCIATION: (fem fuh-TAHL); plural femmes fatales (fem fuh-TAHLZ)
MEANING: (noun) An attractive and seductive woman, especially one who leads others into disaster.
ETYMOLOGY: From French, literally fatal woman. Earliest documented use: 1879.
USAGE: “The film sees Depp’s math teacher character falling for Jolie’s femme fatale as she spins a web of mystery.” John Irish; A Minute With: Angelina Jolie; Reuters (UK); Dec 9, 2010.
On Writing . . . Starts
10 Ways to Start Your Story Better
March 29, 2011 | Jacob M. Appel
The sentence you are currently reading has the potential to brand itself indelibly upon our cultural consciousness and to alter the course of Western Civilization. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But what author doesn’t dream of crafting an opening line that will achieve the iconic recognition of “Call me Ishmael,” or the staying power of “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth …”? In writing, as in dating and business, initial reactions matter. You don’t get a second chance, as mouthwash commercials often remind us, to make a first impression. . . .
Think of every opening line you write as a pebble tossed down a mountainside: The stone may jolt back and forth within a limited path, building up force, but the trajectory of its initial release largely determines its subsequent route. Never forget that the entire course of a story or novel, like an avalanche, is largely defined within its first seconds. To craft a compelling story, you must first launch it in the right direction. Here are 10 ways to do it.
1. Build momentum. The first cardinal rule of opening lines is that they should possess most of the individual craft elements that make up the story as a whole. An opening line should have a distinctive voice, a point of view, a rudimentary plot and some hint of characterization. By the end of the first paragraph, we should also know the setting and conflict, unless there is a particular reason to withhold this information.
This need not lead to elaborate or complex openings. Simplicity will suffice. For example, the opening sentence of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” tells the reader: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” Already, we have a distinctive voice—somewhat distant, possibly ironic—referring to the grandmother with a definite article. We have a basic plot: conflict over a journey. And we have a sense of characterization: a stubborn or determined elderly woman. Although we do not know the precise setting, we can rule out Plato’s Athens, Italy under the Borgias and countless others. All of that in eight words. Yet what matters most is that we have direction—that O’Connor’s opening is not static.
Immediately, we face a series of potential questions: Why didn’t the grandmother want to go to Florida? Where else, if anywhere, did she wish to go? Who did want to go to Florida? A successful opening line raises multiple questions, but not an infinite number. In other words, it carries momentum.
2. Resist the urge to start too early. You might be tempted to begin your narrative before the action actually starts, such as when a character wakes up to what will eventually be a challenging or dramatic day. But unless you’re rewriting Sleeping Beauty, waking up is rarely challenging or dramatic. Often, when we start this way, it’s because we’re struggling to write our way into the narrative, rather than letting the story develop momentum of its own. Far better to begin at the first moment of large-scale conflict. If the protagonist’s early-morning rituals are essential to the story line, or merely entertaining, they can always be included in backstory or flashbacks—or later, when he wakes up for a second time.
3. Remember that small hooks catch more fish than big ones. Many writers are taught that the more unusual or extreme their opening line, the more likely they are to “hook” the reader. But what we’re not taught is that such large hooks also have the power to easily disappoint readers if the subsequent narrative doesn’t measure up. If you begin writing at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill. Similarly, if your hook is extremely strange or misleading, you might have trouble living up to its odd expectations. As a fishing buddy of mine explains, the trick is to use the smallest hook possible to make a catch—and then to pull like crazy in the opposite direction.
4. Open at a distance and close in. In modern cinema, films commonly begin with the camera focused close up on an object and then draw back panoramically, often to revelatory effect, such as when what appears to be a nude form is actually revealed to be a piece of fruit. This technique rarely works in prose. Most readers prefer to be “grounded” in context and then to focus in. Open your story accordingly.
5. Avoid getting ahead of your reader. One of the easiest pitfalls in starting a story is to begin with an opening line that is confusing upon first reading, but that makes perfect sense once the reader learns additional information later in the story. The problem is that few readers, if confused, will ever make it that far. This is not to say that you can’t include information in your opening that acquires additional meaning once the reader learns more. That technique is often a highly rewarding tool. But the opening should make sense on both levels—with and without knowledge the reader will acquire later.
6. Start with a minor mystery. While you don’t want to confuse your readers, presenting them with a puzzle can be highly effective—particularly if the narrator is also puzzled. This has the instant effect of making the reader and narrator partners in crime. An unanswered question can even encompass an entire novel, as when David Copperfield asks, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
7. Keep talk to a minimum. If you feel compelled to begin a story with dialogue, keep in mind that you’re thrusting your readers directly into a maelstrom in which it’s easy to lose them. One possible way around this is to begin with a single line of dialogue and then to draw back and to offer additional context before proceeding with the rest of the conversation—a rare instance in which starting close up and then providing a panorama sometimes works. But long sequences of dialogue at the outset of a story usually prove difficult to follow.
8. Be mindful of what works. Once you’ve given some concentrated thought to your own opening line, obtain copies of anthologies like The Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories and read only the first sentence of each story. As with any other aspect of writing, openings are their own distinct art form—and exposure to the masterwork of others is one of the best ways to learn. (Of course, the challenge of this exercise is to avoid being lured into a story with such a compelling opening that you aren’t able to put it down!)
9. When in doubt, test several options. Writers are often advised to make a short list of titles and try them out on friends and family. Try doing the same with opening sentences. An opening line, like a title, sometimes seems truly perfect—until you come up with several even better choices.
10. Revisit the beginning once you reach the end. Sometimes a story evolves so significantly during the writing process that an opening line, no matter how brilliant, no longer applies to the story that follows. The only way to know this is to reconsider the opening sentence, like the title, once the final draft of the story is complete. Often a new opening is called for. That doesn’t mean your first opening needs to be scrapped entirely; instead, file it away for use in a future project.
Needless to say, a brilliant opening line cannot salvage a story that lacks other merits, nor will your story be accepted for publication based on the opening alone. But in a literary environment where journals and publishing houses receive large quantities of submissions, a distinctive opening line can help define a piece. A riveting opening can even serve as shorthand for an entire story, so that harried editors, sitting around a table as they evaluate the crème de la slush pile, may refer to your piece not by its title, but as “the one that begins with the clocks striking 13” (as does George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). Even after the rest of the story has evaporated from conscious memory, the opening may stick with editors, an iron peg upon which to hang their hats—and, with any luck, it will have that effect on readers, too.
My own personal favorite opening is the first line of Elizabeth Graver’s story “The Body Shop,” which appears in The Best American Short Stories 1991. It begins: “My mother had me sort the eyes.” I dare you not to go out and read what comes next.
Coming Attraction . . .
American Writers Museum gets a concept plan (From the Christian Science Monitor, chapter & verse blog)
By Molly Driscoll, Staff Writer / July 16, 2012
The foundation behind a proposed museum honoring American authors has published a plan for the building.
Authors Louisa May Alcott (l.) and Theodore Dreiser (r.) are two of the writers the Foundation proposes to honor in the planned museum.
The plan for a national museum devoted to American writers has taken another step forward. The American Writers Museum Foundation, which has worked to develop a site centering exclusively on honoring writers from the United States, published a concept plan July 16 that explored how the museum might be laid out and what its focus would be.
According to Amaze Design, the company that developed the museum plan, many Americans are aghast that a facility honoring US authors does not yet exist. “The most common reaction to [the museum] is, ‘You mean we don’t have an American writers museum?’” the concept plan reads.
The stated goal for the proposed museum – which would be 60,000 feet in size when complete – includes the expectation that the first 20,000 feet would be completed by 2015. While nothing has been finalized, the museum will probably be located in Chicago, Ill., according to the foundation.
The concept plan was compiled after brainstorming sessions by authors, designers, museum workers, and others in Boston, New York, and Chicago, funded by the Stead Family Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The projected layout of the museum includes an education center, theater, cafe, bookstore, and literary lounge as well as an open area titled the literary commons. Visitors would walk through the literary commons to reach the writers’ hall, which would contain various sets devoted to topics like “American Families,” “American Towns,” and “Conflict,” with each including famous works that fit the theme. (For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” would be highlighted in the “American Families” section.)
Branching off from the central writers’ hall would be focus galleries, which could center on themes such as banned books or children’s literature. The full text of the concept plan can be found here. [see the 32 page color brochure here:
] Future TWS field trip???
The Last Word/Food for Thought:
“It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.” — Amy Tan