Category Archives: The Take-away

Stuck on a Novel Opening

I’m in the mode of revising the very rough draft of my WIP. How rough? I practically get abrasions from turning the pages. But that’s OK. My philosophy is that any first draft is good, and truth to tell, I really like how this story is shaping up.

But as I revise, I know the opening needs a lot of work. It probably amounts to only one or two paragraphs, but I’m struggling. One things I’ve decided to do is draft five different openings and see what that tells.

What will help, I think, is to look at my little collection of novel beginnings to see what I can learn. Here’s one from One True Thing, by Anna Quindlen:

Excerpt: Jail is not as bad as you might imagine. When I say jail I don’t mean prison. Prison is the kind of place you see in old movies or public TV documentaries, those enormous gray places with guard towers at each corner and curly stripes of razor wire going round and round like a loop–the loop atop a high fence. Prison is where they hit the bars with metal spoons, plan insurrection in the yard, and take the smallest boy–the one in on a first offense–into the shower room, while the guards pretend not to look and leave him to find his own way out, blood trickling palely, crimson mixed with milky white, down the backs of his hairless thighs, the shadows at the backs of his eyes changed forever.

My Take-away: The first sentence hooks me. What follows pulls us into a description of prisons as we identify with what we’ve seen in movies and on TV. It leads us from the innocuous physical characteristics of a prison exterior to the vulgar assault of a boy with hairless thighs. I’m impressed with Quindlen’s ability to evoke the horror of that scene without overly graphic details. And this paragraph lets you know you’re in for a ride with a superb writer.

But on the whole, this is unfortunately a trick opening for what is otherwise a really fine novel. The narrator is not in prison, and she’s most certainly not in a men’s prison.

What I can take away from this novel opening and apply to what I’m trying to do is the recognition that my original draft failed to hit the mark in terms of suggesting what was to come. I have the protagonist grappling with one thing, when it’s really another matter altogether that dogs her.

Back to the drawing board.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, consists not of creating out of the void but out of chaos.

–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

 

Show? Tell? Summarize?

Somewhere between “showing and telling” lies “summarizing,” as in this excerpt from “The Magic Barrel,” by Bernard Malamud, in Major American Short Stories, A. Walton Litz, Ed.

Excerpt: . . . .All day he ran around in the woods, missed an important appointment, forgot to give out his laundry, walked out of a Broadway cafeteria without paying and had to run back with the ticket in his hand; had even not recognized his landlady in the street when she passed with a friend and courteously called out, “A good evening to you, Doctor Finkle.” By nightfall, however, he had regained sufficient calm to sink his nose into a book and there found peace from his thoughts.

 My Take-away: Malamud’s summary offers a satisfying middle ground between telling the reader that the character was scattered all day vs. showing each of the character’s distracted behaviors. I think the strength of this summary comes from piling lapse upon lapse. Presenting one or two of these lapses wouldn’t capture the state of his mind nearly as well. It also doesn’t hurt the imagery that “all day he ran around in the woods.”

Announcement

San Marcos Public Library will hold its indie author day on Sat., Sept. 30th, 2-4 p.m.

Btw

I follow K.M. Weiland’s writing blog. Today’s post, “6 Lifestyle Changes You Can Make To Protect Creativity” was exceptional.

Quotable

I’m playing with placing quotes over images. Probably need to keep working at it.

Janet Fitch’s Rules for Writers


As I’ve said before, White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, is a book I look to again and again to study writing style.  I’m happy to see that Fitch has a new novel coming out November 7th, entitled The Revolution of Marina M. It’s called “a sweeping saga of the Russian Revolution as seen through the eyes of one young woman.” (Just wish she hadn’t chosen the chopped-off head look so in vogue for covers today.)

A while back, Fitch, who teaches writing, shared her advice for writers with a blog of the Los Angeles Times.

Janet Fitch’s 10 Rules for Writers is worth taking a look at. Not wanting to reprint it in full without permission, I’ve taken just a sampling:

 Write the sentence, not just the story 

Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

My Take-away: I find reading Fitch’s rules heartening. I like to picture her laboring over craft just like I do.

Glimpse of the Past

I was recently talking with a friend about my former career as a newspaper reporter. This was before computers so stories were typed. We made small revisions following a copywriting guide, so, for example, if you crossed out a phrase and later decided to keep, it you wrote “stet” and circled it.

For big revisions, we had scissors and rubber cement. Need to move a paragraph? Cut it off and paste it where it belongs. Hence, “cut-and-paste.”

Quotable

The truth is libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy, and community. 

–Paula Poundstone 

 

 

Writer Skillfully Employs Meteor Shower

In the overnight hours of August 12th and 13th, I hope to catch the Perseid meteor shower. I’ve watched for the meteors several times but caught them just once. On that memorable occasion, friends and I had driven into the foothills of Denver to get away from light pollution. After staring up at the night sky for some time, we decided to lie down on the side of the road. Kids, don’t try this, OK?

It’s easy for writers to employ cosmic events in trite ways, but I’m reminded of a passage from Janet Fitch’s White Oleander. Astrid is standing with Ray and others watching for the Quatrandid meteor shower:

Excerpt: I could hear the mud sucking at his boots as he shifted his weight. I was glad it was dark, that he couldn’t see the flush of pleasure on my face as he drew closer, looking up at the sky as if he cared about the Quatrandids, as if that’s why he’d come out. . . . He was standing right next to me. If I shifted just an inch to my left, I could brush him with my sleeve. I felt the radiant heat of him across the narrow gap between us in the darkness. We had never stood so close.

My Take-away: The first line puts us right in the moment, hardly a romantic one, but it lets us know how acutely aware Astrid is of Ray’s presence. The rest of the paragraph reveals the growing mutual attractio without Fitch ever saying so directly.

Let me add that if I had only one book to emulate in terms of writing style, I’d choose White Oleander.

 

Compromise With Sin Available for Pre-order

The Kindle edition of Compromise With Sin will be published on August 19th. It’s available now for pre-order at $3.99.

Quotable

I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed. Embrace it with both arms. Hug it. Love it, and above all, become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good.

–Roald Dahl

Sensory Images Enrich Writing

Model of the Führermuseum

 

There’s nothing like a few well-chosen sensory images to bring a scene to life. In the following example from All the Light We Cannot See, by Anothony Doerr, we’re in the imagination of Sergeant Major von Rumpel.

Excerpt: In his weaker moments, he imagines walking in some future hour between arcades of pillars in the great Führermuseum at Linz, his boots clacking smartly on the marble, twilight cascading through high windows.

My Take-away: A lesser author would have said, “. . . he imagines visiting the Führermuseum at Linz.”  But Doerr’s words: “arcades of pillars . . . his boots clacking smartly on the marble, twilight cascading through high windows”  evoke a sensory experience that puts us right in the moment. The passage also reinforces von Rumpel’s exalted opinion of himself.

I thought for a moment that “walking” could be replaced with “strutting,” but I realized that’s how an observer would describe von Rumpel, not how he would describe himself.

Incidentally, both von Rumpel and Hitler could only dream of the  Führermuseum, intended to house much of the world’s finest art, most of it confiscated by the Nazis. Hitler’s plan for a grand museum complex, to include a library, opera house, theater, and more, was never realized.

Quotable

Writing a book is an adventure: to begin with it is a toy. And an amusement. And then it becomes a mistress. And then it becomes a master. And then it becomes a tyrant. And the last phase is that just about as you are reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster. And fling him about to the public.

–Winston Churchill

Write a Scene That Plants Doubt

I used to be a fan of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Thanks to the shows’ producers and editors, there’s seldom a lack of tension.

But in one finale there was a tense moment so delicious I wished I’d written it.

Excerpt: After Deanna chose Jesse over Jason, Jason had an opportunity to confront her, with Jesse present, as to why she hadn’t chosen him. I don’t recall her answer, but he got in this parting shot: “I always wanted you to look at me the way you looked at Jesse and Grant.”

My Take-away: Whoa. What if Jason had said, “I always wanted you to look at me the way you looked at Jesse?” He would have come across as just a whiny loser Deanna and Jesse could more or less forget about. But his words planted the knowledge (or nagging suspicion) that she wanted Grant perhaps as much as she wanted Jesse. (Btw, Deanna and Jesse didn’t make it to the altar.)

OK, I know that in this reality TV world Jason’s revelation probably didn’t phase the couple. But the scene inspires me to think about how I might introduce doubt into my protagonist’s budding relationship. There’s not only the moment of revelation, but also the fallout that will bring tension to later scenes. E.g., when they’re having a romantic dinner out, it’s ruined when he accuses her of flirting with the waiter. Etc., etc.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.

–Warren Buffet

Writer Uses Child To Echo Parents

I like the way Flannery O’Connor makes use of a child in this passage from her short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,”  in Major American Short Stories

The grandmother who lives with her son’s family is trying to persuade them to visit east Tennessee instead of Florida and tells them The Misfit escaped from federal prison in Florida.

Excerpt: . . .the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
“She wouldn’t stay home to be queen for a day,” said June Star without raising her yellow head.
“Yes, and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?” the grandmother asked.
“I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said.
“She wouldn’t stay home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.”

My Take-away: What a great slice of family dynamics. While John Wesley gives typical “boy” responses,” it’s apparent that June Star is echoing what one or both parents say about her grandmother. (It’s never clear to me which parent.) A lesser writer wouldn’t trust the reader to get the subtext but would have indicated that June Star was parroting Mom or Dad. Also, I like the way June Star sticks to her subject rather than answering grandmother’s question.

O’Connor’s technique can be used effectively with other relationships as well: an employee who echoes a boss, a student who echoes a professor, etc.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

 

Quotable

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.

–Groucho Marx

Reading Like a Writer

You can take a course or read a book purporting to teach you to “read like a writer.” I’m not sure why you’d want to unless you’re a writer.

I say this because sometimes I let my critical leanings get in the way of enjoyment. I might even stop reading and rewrite a passage. (I even do this with the newspaper on occasion.)

Here’s a passage from Summerlost, a novel for fifth to eighth grade readers, by Ally Condie. Cedar is a girl whose grief resurfaces long after her little brother’s death.

Excerpt: (My grandparents) knew that Ben’s favorite kind of ice cream wasn’t ice cream at all, it was rainbow sherbet, and he always ate the green first, and so when I saw it in my grandma’s freezer once and I started crying they didn’t even ask why and I think I saw my uncle Nick, my mom’s brother, crying too.

My Take-away: I applaud the author for creating a scene that evokes an experience of grief the reader can feel. Seeing the sherbet is an excellent trigger for this poignant moment. If I were to rewrite this passage, I think it could engage the reader more intimately if it hadn’t required so much explanation. Let the reader know long before that Ben loved sherbet and ate the green first. Then all Cedar (and the reader) has to do is see the sherbet still sitting in the freezer long after Ben’s death to have an emotional response. And don’t say again that it was Ben’s favorite ice cream as that would suggest the reader doesn’t have an intimate relationship with the story. I’d also lose “My grandparents knew . . .” as over-explaining. Finally, the reader should know before this that uncle Nick is her mother’s brother.

Emotions That Touch Readers–or Not

In Sweetwater Creek, by Anne Rivers Siddons, Buddy, Emily’s soul mate brother, has died. Her other brothers say the puppy she’s chosen is just a hound dog.

Excerpt: So she named him Elvis, and took the puppy to her room, and fell as irretrievably in love as she ever would in her life. Girl and dog were two halves of a whole, two chambers of one heart. The swirling black abyss that Buddy had left was almost filled. But only almost. 

My Take-away:  Writing about grief and love is difficult. I think this passage is simply and beautifully evocative. (It helps if you’re a dog lover.)  My friend Gaylon Greer suggested a long time ago that I read Siddons as a guide to expressing emotion. One thing I don’t care for in this passage, however, is that it reveals the future, as in the clause ‘as she ever would in her life.’ Not something I’d emulate.

Excerpt: Oh, Buddy. The words felt as if they were etched in acid on the surface of the iceberg inside her. Oh, Buddy.

 My Take-away: Yikes! Sounds like a thirteen-year-old wannabe writer straining for a poetic line.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Vonnegut’s 1952 Novel Strikes a Nerve Today

I may have to re-read Player Piano, the late Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, published in 1952. Contemplating a dystopian post-WWIiI future, he envisioned a class-divided America in which meaningful work is almost non-existent. Here’s the opening:

 

Excerpt: Ilium, New York, is divided into three parts.

In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live.

If the bridge across the Iroquois were dynamited, few daily routines would be disturbed. Not many people on either side have reasons other than curiosity for crossing.

During the war, in thousands of Iliums over America, managers and engineers learned to get along without their men and women who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war–production with almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how that won the war. Democracy owed its life to know-how.

My Take-away: How disturbing or frightening were these words in 1952? Apparently not disturbing enough for society to reorganize itself in the face of inevitable loss of jobs and denigration of work.

I recall about three years ago visiting Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream plant in Vermont. A fun tour, but what stays with me is that looking through a glass window at the production floor below, I saw just two human beings.

In a July 1973 Playboy magazine interview, Vonnegut explained the inspiration for the novel. While working for General Electric in 1949 he watched a computerized milling machine cutting out rotors for jet engines and gas turbines. “Player Piano was my response to having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.”

Quote du Jour

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Stephen King wrote this in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Love the thought, which I could apply to exercise, writing, reading, so many aspects of my life. Too bad it’s so long. I suppose a tattoo is out of the question. (Thanks to Brad Whittington and Darrell Bryant for this quote.)

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.