Showing posts with label classes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label classes. Show all posts

23 July 2018

Why Workshops?

I loved teaching. If it were still about interacting with the kids and helping them grow and develop--as opposed to getting them ready for a pointless standardized test that keeps getting dumbed down and is only used to gauge a teacher's performance instead of the kids it pretends to test--you'd still find me in the classroom, funky tie loose and sleeves rolled one turn below my elbows, 183 days a year. But it isn't and I'm not.
That's why I still conduct writing workshops. Sure, I get paid almost enough to cover my gas to and from the event, but the truth is I still have a major teaching jones. It took me a long time to learn this stuff, so I want to help other people learn from my mistakes.

When I turned in the key to my classroom for the 33rd time, I knew how to write a decent sentence and even a passable paragraph. But I didn't know how to tell a good story. That's harder than it sounds. You probably have at least one friend or relative who can mangle a knock-knock joke or put everyone to sleep telling about something that happened to them, don't you?

Once my writing collected enough form rejection letters to make the point, I went back to what my adviser on my sixth-year project (A novel, by coincidence) told me years before. He directed me to the paperback racks in the local drug store (If you're under about forty, you may have to Google those terms) and read the first chapter of ten or twelve books at random.

 "Don't read Austen and James and Conrad," he told me. "Read Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace and Jacqueline Susanne and Mickey Spillane. Read Michener (He hated Michener). Figure out what they do in those first few pages that you don't. You don't have 'first-chapterness.'"

Plumbers, carpenters and electricians all train apprentices. So do doctors and teachers. People take dancing lessons, music lessons, golf lessons and painting lessons. We know that one-on-one training works. How do fish learn to swim and birds learn to fly? You can buy a bunch of books and read them, but a good writing workshop is even better.

Many writing conferences offer sessions by writers who are also excellent teachers. They may even feature a one-on-one manuscript critique. At the New England Crime Bake, Kate Flora analyzed an early version of my own Blood On The Tracks and turned problems into opportunities. At the Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt looked at an even earlier draft of that same book.

When I met him over coffee (We both wanted beer, but we were on campus), he said, "You write excellent dialogue, and you probably know it. But that's both good and bad."

"How can that be?" I asked.

"Well," Offutt said, "it's good because it is good. But it's bad because you know it, so you try to make that dialogue do too much of the work. Have you ever done theater?"

At that time, I was acting, directing, producing or designing for four or five productions a year.

"You need to learn to write better exposition and description. Even plays aren't just the dialogue. The other stuff is the context that gives it meaning. And that's even truer in novels and stories."

My bookshelves sag under the weight of fifty or sixty books on writing, including a few on dialogue. None of them ever said that. The fifteen-minute chat helped more than all those books.

Now I pay it forward. I have five workshops scheduled through mid-November, and I'll share handouts with examples, both good and bad, and leave lots of time for people to experiment with them and ask questions. We do group activities, too: creating characters, punching up plots and premises, sharpening dialogue. Every time we encounter a problem (Which I often recognize in my own stuff, too) we figure out how to fix it. Mistakes are the best teachers I know, and I'm still learning every time I teach.

Most of the venues invite me back, which is great, but I don't do it for the money. Fortunately.

I do it because I still love it.

09 October 2017

BSP For You & Me

On the heels of Janice's excellent discussion of how to prepare for an interview...
This year has been a good one for short story sales (for me, anyway. Most of the other contributors to this blog sell more in any given month), but it's still stacking up as my first losing season since 2013.

Yes, I have more books available than I did then (so far, twelve novels and a collection of stories), but both my close friends know that the annual sales and royalties from those self-published books won't pay for our cats' prescription diets for a week.

The bulk of my writing income--and "bulk" is a misleading term here--comes from other sources, mostly editing and conducting writing workshops. Over the last two years, the State of Connecticut has been plagued with horrendous budget problems that have been passed on to libraries, where I usually hold those workshops. In 2015, I led sixteen sessions, my all-time high. This year, I did one in April and only had one more scheduled until last week. I know three other writers going through the same straits, and for the first time ever, we're competing with each other for the same few gigs.

How do you get more business without bumping off the competition?


Years ago, comedian Bill Dana, AKA "Jose Jimenez," had a routine in which the interviewer asked him, "How did you get the title 'King of the Surf?'" and he replied, "I had cards printed."

 That's not quite as outrageous now as it was then. We need to figure out the continuum of shrinking violet, effective promotion and obnoxious BSP. It's a fine line, and when you're offering to teach, it gets even finer.

Most people want to drive a car before they buy it. I have yet to buy a guitar online because I need to hear it and touch it first. It's the same with writing. People need to believe that you can help them write better, so you have to show them what's under your hood. Obviously, your own books can help, but some people don't have time to read them before hiring you.

When I began editing, I offered a freebie through Sisters in Crime. I would examine the first twenty-five pages of a manuscript for free to the first three respondents in exchange for a reference letter I could post on my website. The requests arrived in my email so quickly that I ended up reading five samples. Satisfied customers give you more cred than anything else. If you're a writer, nothing tops reviews from happy readers...except maybe blurbs from other writers who have a large following.

Those references are on my website, and I keep a printed copy for when I meet a librarian or--as happened last week--the head of a writer's retreat that plans to open this month.

I also bring blurbs that better-known writers (practically everyone) wrote for me. These are people I met at various conferences. In a few cases they mentored me or led workshops I attended. Reviews written by a real person, especially a legitimate critic or Publishers Weekly or Kenyon Review mean a lot, too. I print out a list of my awards and nominations because they mean that someone who knows the business thinks I won't stink up the joint. Besides, it's great being able to say I lost an award to Karin Slaughter or Dennis Lehane.

Be flexible. I have a printed description of my workshops and can make them last from about sixty to ninety minutes by encouraging more questions or giving people more time to work on the activities I include. I taught high school English for thirty-three years, so I know how to create a decent worksheet.

One of the first rules of grant writing is that you have to show how the public will benefit, and it's the same here. You're working with the library, bookstore or other venue. Remember the new writers retreat I mentioned above? Instead of charging my usual fee for workshops, they will charge the students and we will split the fee. I'll get less money than usual, but the Story Teller's Cottage will get some money in the coffers right away, which means they can grow...and invite me back again. You can spend "less," but try spending "nothing."

I gave the new director some of my business cards (yes, thank you, Bill Dana), which mention my editing. I gave her several bookmarks, too. The front is a head shot with my website and Facebook page. Easy to read, and won't need updating. I can use it forever, especially since I don't plan to age at all. Ever. I assembled the list of books on the back three years ago when I had the titles but they weren't out yet. Planning that far in advance meant I could buy the bookmarks in bulk (lower price) and use them longer. Starving writers go for cheap, OK?

The bookmark serves two purposes First, it shows people that, yes, I did write a book, which suggests what's under the hood. Giving the titles means people can find the books and read them, which does even more of that.

Sure, it's creating an image, but it's also content and credibility. I don't wear a tie when I meet people, but I don't wear cut-offs and a Playboy tee shirt either.

I've learned to ask a few questions, too. These help the venue and me work together and help that professional image again.

Do you have Wi-fi? Most places do, but I'm beginning to sell more books at events by card than by cash, so it's good to know, especially if I post the event on my website or Facebook page. If you take a credit card, it suggests that you're a "real" business, too.

Will you print out my handouts? If the venue takes registration in advance, they know how many copies they need. That means I don't show up with a bunch of extras I'll have to recycle. It also means that if someone decides to attend at the session at the last minute, the venue can print up more copies and I don't have to ask someone to share.

Do you have an easel or dry marker board (I hate power point!)? I can bring one, which shows I have my own equipment, but it's easier if you have to cart less stuff around.

Finally, I encourage librarians and other people to take pictures I can use on my sites for further credibility. But do I really look that funny?

Yes, it's BSP, but it gets your foot in the door. And the best promotion in the world won't hide a lousy workshop.

Does this all work? I picked up three workshops last week. They satisfy my teaching Jones. And since this is a new venue and we're guessing at the best times and days for the sessions, I'm adding an evaluation sheet that asks participants about the format, content, presentation, time and space. It also asks if they'd like to take another workshop. Criticism and suggestions are how you get better.

The Story Tellers Cottage (check their website and Facebook page) held their open house last Saturday, and I made a point of showing up with more bookmarks and to meet more people. They're doing the same thing I am, but they're taking a bigger risk, so they have fewer chances to get it right.

I think they're on the right track.

27 August 2016

Hey Teach! Why do you do it? (aka Vegetables for Authors)

It all started in 1992.  I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and the local college came calling.
Did I want to come on faculty, and teach in the writing program?  Hell, yes!  (Pass the scotch.)

Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing, but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like Animation and Theatre.  Such is the life of an itinerant college prof.  (Pass the scotch.)

Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author.  Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH!  (Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be scary.  Pass the scotch.)

Why do I do it?   As September lurks ever nearer, I decided to ask myself that question.  And give a completely honest answer.  Here goes:

1.  It’s not the Money
Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?  Part time profs in Canada are poorly paid.  I’m top rate, at $45 an hour.  I’m only paid for my time in the classroom (3 hours a week).  For every hour in the classroom, I spend at least two hours prepping and marking.  We don’t get paid for that.  At end of term, I spend several days evaluating manuscripts.  We don’t get paid for that either.  This means I am getting paid less than minimum wage.  So I’m not doing it for the money.

2.  It’s not all those Book Sales.
Years ago, an author gal more published than I was at the time said a peculiar thing to me:   “Aspiring writers don’t buy books.”

I found this alarming, but other authors since then have said the same.  They teach a workshop, and students beg for feedback on their manuscripts.  But they don’t buy the teacher’s books.  Not even one.  I find this bizarre, because I would want to see how the instructor practices what she preaches. 
Bemusement aside, I’m careful in my classes not to pressure students to buy my books.  They’ve paid money for the course, and that’s enough.

My point is:  if you think by teaching a course, you are going to get an avalanche of book sales, think again.

So why the heck do you do it, Mel?  That’s time you could invest in writing your own books…

3.  It takes me back to first principles
I teach all three terms.  Every four months, I am reminded about goal/motivation/conflict.  Three act structure.  Viewpoint rules.  Creating compelling characters.  Teaching Crafting a Novel forces me to constantly evaluate my own work, as I do my students’.  It’s like ‘vegetables for authors.’  In other words, good for me.

4.  It’s the People 
By far, the most valuable thing about teaching a night course year after year is it allows me to mix with people who would not normally be part of my crowd.  Adult students of all ages and backgrounds meet up in my classrooms, and many are delightful.  I’ve treasured the varied people I’ve met through the years, and keep in touch with many of them.

Getting to know people other than your own crowd (in my case, other writers) is extremely valuable for an author.  You’re not merely guessing how others different from you may think…you actually *know* people who are different.  This helps you create diverse characters in your fiction who come alive.

As well, you meet people from different professions…doctors, lawyers, salesmen and women, bank officers, government workers, labourers, grad students, Starbucks baristas, roofers, police, firefighters, chefs, paramedics.  I have my own list of people to call on, when I need to do research.

5.  It’s good for my Soul

I'm paying it forward.  Believe it or not, I didn't become an author in a vacuum.  I had two mentors along the way who believed in me.  Michael Crawley and Lou Allin - I hope you are having a fab time in the afterlife.  Hugs all around, when I get there.

Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college course credit.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  And when I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.  There is no greater high.

No question, my life is richer through teaching fiction writing, even if my bank account is not.

You can help Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The Goddaughter Caper.  This will keep her from writing dreary novels that will depress us all.  Pass the scotch.


18 February 2012

Night Work

Some quick background info: For the past eleven years, I've taught six night courses every year in the Continuing Education department at Millsaps College here in Jackson, Mississippi. Each course is seven weeks long, and the subject is "Writing and Selling Short Stories." (Actually, there are two different courses. One's intro-level and the other's advanced. The second of my courses has the brilliant and original title "Writing and Selling Short Stories, Part 2.")

Class distinctions

Lest I misrepresent myself, I should explain that I have no formal training that would qualify me to be an instructor on these topics. I was, in earlier episodes of my life story, an Air Force captain and an IBM systems engineer. I am not an English major, I don't have an MFA, and my only journalism experience is that I drew cartoons for my high-school newspaper. What then, you might well ask, steered me to teach courses in writing and selling short stories? The answer is two things: (1) I simply love to talk to other writers about writing, and (2) I've sold a lot of short stories. An added bonus--one I never thought of before agreeing to this "job," long ago--is that it's brought me in contact with some of the most fascinating people I've ever met. At this point I'm three weeks away from finishing up the classes in our winter session, and--as usual--I've been blessed with a number of talented and interesting students.

How interesting? Well, I got to thinking the other day about the several hundred folks who have endured my courses, and what I came up with gives proof to the "from all walks of life" cliche. My students' ages have ranged from fifteen to eighty-six, and their regional and ethnic backgrounds are almost as varied. So are their occupations.

Odd Jobs?

On the remote chance that any of you are interested in this kind of thing, here are some of the day jobs of the writers who have subjected themselves to my instruction in the art (?) of creating and marketing short fiction:

Lawyers -- At least one per class, it seems.
Physicians -- Two dozen or so.
Accountants and engineers -- A LOT of these folks. I have no idea why.
A head chef
A nun
A limo driver
A cartoonist
TV newcasters -- Three of them, so far.
Artists and musicians
Full-time students -- Two in high school, several in college.
Stay-at-home mothers
Police officers -- Plenty of grist for the story mill, in that job.
English professors -- Enough of them to thoroughly intimidate me.
Computer programmers/analysts
Published novelists -- Maybe half a dozen.
Government employees -- Many, many of these. Why? Another mystery.

NOTE: I've never had a career politician as a student, which seems strange since fiction writers are liars by trade. (Not that I'm complaining.)

Things I didn't expect

One fact that's always surprised me is that of the 68 groups of students I've had so far, 66 of them included more women than men, and a few classes were made up entirely of women. Does that mean that there are more female writers, these days? Again, I have no idea. There are almost certainly more female readers.

I was also surprised to discover that the classes are usually equally divided in the following categories: (1) outliners vs. non-outliners and (2) literary writers vs. genre writers. The lit/genre proportions are a little puzzling because, as a nation, we obviously have more readers of genre fiction out there, than (so-called) literary fiction. Of those who are genre writers, though, I've noticed that many are fans of mystery/suspense, which is my first love as well.

Things I expected

Something that doesn't puzzle me is that these adult-education "enrichment" classes are so much fun for the instructor. I think there are two reasons for that. First, the subject taught is usually one that the teacher truly enjoys; second, adult-ed students actually want to be there. Attendance is voluntary, not mandatory. They're even paying to be there. Sometimes that makes a big difference.

I recognize that occasional seminars and workshops and conference sessions are fun to teach as well. But a regular, ongoing, classroom-environment course is especially good--at least for me--in that it always keeps me current and in-touch and busy with the kinds of things I like to do anyhow. It also makes me feel a certain responsibility to try to keep publishing regularly. Students in pilot training need the reassurance that their instructors still remember how to safely and effectively fly the planes, and I think that applies to other kinds of students as well. (Failure on my part, of course, only means rejection letters, not crash landings--but it's still failure.)

Another thing I sort of expected: Nonfiction writers don't seem to find it difficult to make the switch to short stories. Any writing experience helps, whether it's technical journals, legal briefs, self-help columns, or what--and writers who have previously done only nonfiction seem thrilled at the sudden freedom offered by fiction, in both content and style. Their imaginations can run wild. And even the English profs tend to welcome, rather than resist, the chance to occasionally splice commas, fragment sentences, and split infinitives.

Get out of there, Billy--your class is over HERE

The only drawback to this teaching gig is that my classroom happens to be down the hall from a class on belly dancing and another on French wines. Students who have to walk past those open doors (especially when the gyrating and tasting are in process--I'll leave it to you to figure out which group is doing which) are probably often tempted to stop in there rather than continue on to a place where we'll be talking about manuscript formatting and simultaneous submissions and kill fees and dangling modifiers. But continue they do, and I think many of them wind up enjoying this writing stuff as much as I do.

Question: Do any of you teach, or have any of you taught, these kinds of courses? Have you ever enrolled in them? Any insights you might want to offer?

By the way, it just occurred to me that terms like "added bonus" and "continue on" might be redundant. Maybe I should learn to practice what I preach . . .

18 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part III

Susan SlaterIn previous weeks, we answered three critical questions about writing fiction. We pick up this week with two more questions and then give you the opportunnity to participate.

• Question: Why is word choice so important starting off?

• Answer: You don’t get a second chance to do it right!

To establish mood, introduce character… Readers are unforgiving. They’ll often put a book down before they’ll make excuses for you and keep on reading… yeah, even your best friends will find it difficult to keep reading telling themselves it will get better. If you’ve disappointed them, there’s probably another book on the nightstand or already in the Kindle that promises to be better. It’s competitive out there— don’t forget that! Whether the reader continues is often “set” by the end of the first paragraph. The term “hook” is used when describing how the reader is roped in, committed from the very start. You have an obligation to your readers— a lot of things rolled into one—to entice, promise something worthy of their time, set up the framework (character, setting, plot) and you better deliver right from the very first word!

Consider what we know from the 5 word opening of April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black: “Momma, are you a virgin?”

We know the approximate age of the speaker (probably pre-teen or just turned 13); we know the extent of her sexual knowledge; we know she trusts her mother with “delicate” material; and because of this we know right up front “character roles.” And we know that the book fits into the “Coming of Age” genre. Whew! That’s a lot in just five little words!

• Question: What’s in a name?

• Answer: Everything!
The Pumpkin Seed Massacre
Nº 1 in Ben Pecos series

Would you have finished Moby Dick if the first line had read: “Call me, Larry”? Make names work for you and establish names upfront. If you write a series, give your protagonist a name that will last and be easy to remember: Kinsey, Walt Longmire, John Rebus, Harry Bosch, Ben Pecos, Leaphorn and Chee.

Names can establish age. For example, today 90% of those named Susan are 50 years of age or older. What about names like Edith? Nettie? Or Mame? They instantly suggest another era. While names like Britney, Misty Dawn, Amber and Tiffany might suggest younger women with tattoos. Likewise for men—those named Donald are usually over fifty, the same for Frank, Arnold, Arthur, Harold, Herbert, and Stanley. Those younger tattooed bikers might be a Josh, Brett, or Brandon. It remains to be seen if the Apples, Sparrows, Blankets, and Shilohs of the world will cause a stampede of like namings.

Exercise 1— Starting with Dialogue

He saw her leaving the Mall by the side door and caught up with her just as she slipped behind the wheel of the Mini-Van.

“Stephanie.” He caught his breath, “And Eric.” He hadn’t seen the man in the passenger’s seat at first.

Directions: Write a paragraph of dialogue among these 3 persons—identify them only by voice or action; do not use he said / she said.
* * *
Exercise 2— Identify Approach You’ve Used

Look at an opening paragraph from your own writing. How and why do you started the story where you did? Would you do things differently after today’s discussion?
* * *
Exercise 3— The Very First Sentence

The word beginning is a misnomer—you aren’t beginning something; you’re plopping the reader down in the middle of something that’s been ongoing.

Consider these first lines:
  1. “They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.” The Lady with the Dog, Anton Chekhov
  2. “She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.” Gesturing, John Updike
  3. “I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.” Medley, Toni Cade Bambara
  4. “Jericha believed herself already an orphan—her mother was in the ground by the time she could walk on it—so the loss of her father when it came was not an exceptional thing.” Jump-up Day, Barbara Kingsolver
  5. “I got over to the side of the road as far as I could, into the grass and the weeds, but my father steered the car over that way, too.” The Undesirable, David Huddle

Write an opening sentence. It can be a part of dialogue, a narrative, a description of person or place; it can be first person or third.
* * *
Exercise 4— 10 in 10

Again, using something you’ve written, count the facts in your first paragraph.

Work on these fundamentals and you're well on the way to your first story.

Next Week

Dale Andrews returns!

11 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part II

Susan Slater
Last week, we asked and answered the question:
• Question: What do readers need to know right up front??

• Answer: Whatever will keep them reading!

This week we tackle three more questions on writing.

• Question: How do you know where (within your story) to start?

• Answer: Start as close to the ending as you possibly can!!

Why?? It makes you consider and reconsider using backstory and should encourage you to plop your reader down in the middle of action.

Too many times the lure of backstory makes a writer add a prologue. If you can’t start your story by simply dropping your reader into the deep end, you may want to rethink your storyline. Prologues seldom work!

A tricky beginning but one that does many things is what I call psychological backstory—tell a story within a story that shows the inner workings of the protagonist—his or her frame of mind. Consider Craig Johnson’s opening to Cold Dish:
“She might have knocked, but I didn’t hear it because I was watching the geese. I watch the geese a lot in the fall, when the days get shorter and the ice traces the rocky edges of Clear Creek… The geese fly down the valley south, with their backs to me, and I usually sit with my back to the window, but occasionally I get caught with my chair turned; this seems to be happening more and more, lately.”
There isn’t one of us who hasn’t daydreamed watching some act of nature—fish schooling, clouds drifting, rain hitting the window—and those moments of introspection are revealing—we’re contemplating problems, we’re wishing we were someplace else or with someone else. At the very least it sets up a longing, a hint that not everything is truly “right” with Walt’s world. “Geese flying south” . . . does he want to get away? What is he wanting/needing to escape? And because he’s so human, we want to find out what’s wrong and how he’s going to go about making it right. The reader is invested from the first. The foibles, vulnerabilities, Achilles heel—these are what hook us. He/she’s just like we are and we want to root for him or her. We want to see “growth”—where it starts and where it ends.

Consider Nicholas Sparks opening to The Notebook:
“Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end? The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. I’m a sight this morning; two shirts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice around my neck and tucked into a thick sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermostat in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me. It clicks and groans and spews hot air like a fairy-tale dragon, and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been thirty years in the making. Eighty years, I think sometimes, and despite my own acceptance of my age, it still amazes me that I haven’t been warm since George Bush was president. I wonder if this is how it is for everyone my age.”
Again, backstory woven neatly with the present giving the reader psychological insight—a peek inside the character’s mind.

• Question: Why do you need to know the span of time your story covers BEFORE you start to write?

• Answer: It will act as a control.

A time framework gives (usually) much needed parameters to your story. In this case, write between the lines!

• Question: Why is word choice so important starting off?

• Answer: You don’t get a second chance to do it right!

I'll explain why next week.

04 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part I

Susan SlaterUndetered (or perhaps (shudder) drawn) by Leigh's communiqués covering the weirdness of Florida, Susan Slater recently moved from the Southwestern US (New Mexico, Arizona) to Palm Coast, between St. Augustine and Daytona. First she was beset with internet problems, then Sunday she telephoned SleuthSayers International Headquarters. horrified that her computer had died. Fortunately, she'd sent in her intended article, which appears today. Unfortunately, she will have to introduce herself personally when she gets her new machine. (She's considering using this opportunity to switch from PCs to a Mac, possibly an iMac, a Macbook air– or both! Me, I stick with my Underwood.)

Susan is the author of several Southwest mystery novels including single title and series, including the Ben Pecos series. She's also the author of the breakout 'henlit' novel, 0 to 60.


The Class of Writing, Part I

by Susan Slater

Most readers today– certainly those thirty-five and younger grew up with computers! They expect their information demands to be met quickly–they IM, email, download, text, twitter, speed-dial– anything that saves them time. And information is always at their fingertips– iPods, Blackberries, cell phones, laptops– the pace of life seems frantic and the amount of information staggering!

It's certainly no longer necessary to describe the elephant! The gorgeous prose of yesteryear is almost non-existent! We are exposed to so much more today. Poor Miss Marple is no longer gory enough– not when the reader has just seen a murder/suicide on the six o'clock news.

Taking It Home

How different from when I grew up. I wrote in a journal, posted notes to friends, sent honest-to-goodness thank-you notes on real paper in real envelopes (no Jacquie Larson here). As a child I read books written a hundred years before my time–and loved them. The richness of back-story, the lushness of description– I wanted to be another Bronte or Austen or at the very least an Agatha. I wanted to "live" with those characters–grow with them. A chat with Hercule Piorot? Too perfect.

I always chose the 'fattest' book on the library shelf to take on vacation–it had to last a week! No beach read, commuter scan, or summer light-weight for me. I personally think it's a shame we have very few epics being written today. I know I was meant to write The Thornbirds!

But in our bottom-line driven society, terms like having punch and to-the-point take precedence. There's very little patience for carefully crafted, in-depth stories with memorable characters. We have formula romance and formula mysteries. Readers demand (and get) fast-paced stories that mirror their lives. There are not a lot of characters in fiction today that I'd want to take home!

Attracting That Audience

So what does this mean for writers? If we want to attract a reading audience, we MUST take heed or not be published! This modern-day pacing has changed the way we write.
We no longer have the luxury of wallowing in lengthy back-story or page after page of description– hey, our readers have been there, done that. And they can always Google a topic they're not familiar with.

All this ranting brings me to some advice. Having taught writing for many years, I tried to come up with what might be the most helpful to writers. Comments on plot, characterization, scenes, POV? All are great topics but I decided to start (and aptly so) with beginnings. Those opening paragraphs that will make or break you. And I'm not just talking about "hooks"– but maybe more the nuances. See what you think.

• Question: What do readers need to know right up front??
First paragraph, first 5 pages, first 10?
• Answer: Whatever will keep them reading!
  1. It could a foreshadowing. Consider Connie Shelton's opening to Memories Can Be Murder:
    We come to certain crossroads in our lives. It is inevitable. Some are planned–marriage, career changes, cross-country moves. At other times we come to these crossroads quite suddenly, with no warning. I was orphaned in such a way over fifteen years ago and managed to get on with my life anyway. But within the past few days the discovery of some boxes of old papers dumped my preconceived ideas about my own life suddenly and completely upside down.
  2. If you don't want to "bait" your reader, snag him with a description (setting the stage or establishing tone) of something so unusual that he's propelled to continue. For example, Tony Hillerman in A Thief of Time:
  3. "The Moon had risen just above the cliff behind her. Out on the packed sand of the wash bottom the shadow of the walker made a strange elongated shape. Sometimes it suggested a heron, sometimes one of those stick-figure forms of an Anasazi pictograph. An animated pictograph, its arms moving rhythmically as the moon shadow drifted across the sand. Sometimes, when the goat trail bent and put the walker's profile against the moon, the shadow became Kokopelli himself. The back pack formed the spirit's grotesque hump, the walking stick Kokopelli's crooked flute. Seen from above, the shadow would have made a Navajo believe that the great yei northern clans called Watersprinkler had taken visible form. If an Anasazi had risen from his thousand-year grave in the trash heap under the cliff ruins here, he would have seen the Humpbacked Flute Player, the rowdy god of fertility of his lost people. But the shadow was only the shape of Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal blocking out the light of an October moon."
  4. 0 to 60Or pull the reader directly into the action–often done through dialogue. Let the reader experience (or discover) what is happening along with the main character. Consider Susan Slater's opening to 0 to 60:
    "I have a love child."

    "Ed, I don't have time for games. Ok, Ok, give me a hint. Movie? Novel?"

    She continued to slip his tux from its protective covering, twist the hanger handle perpendicular, and stretch to secure it over the closet door. She smiled. They hadn't played a version of What's That Line? for years. But back when things were simple– before children, a demanding job with a six-figure salary– they'd open a bottle of wine and just be together. Would it be like that again now that he was retiring?
    Here the reader is 'with' Shelly when she learns that her marriage is a sham. By experiencing the event, the reader buys into the story (perhaps, identifies with it) and wants to find out how Shelly will handle the crisis.

    Consider also, Erica Holtzer's Eye for an Eye, where a mother is on the phone with her daughter on Halloween and hears what happens when the daughter opens the door to what she thinks is more trick-or-treaters. The reader is right there experiencing it with her.

  5. If I'm writing a short story–where I do not have the luxury of space–I have to make every sentence count especially in the first paragraph. I call it the "10 in 10" rule– 10 facts in the opening paragraph of 10 lines! Look at the following opening paragraph from An Eye for an Eye, my contribution to the anthology of short stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. Can you find all the facts? ONLY count those that further the story–those that are necessary to the plot:
    Sliding behind the steering wheel, Edie started the rental and quickly turned the heater to three before pulling a New Mexico map from the glove box. At least she couldn't get lost. Ha! Her friends would laugh at that. She had been known to screw up going from point A to B in a straight line. But not this time. She shook out the map and traced the route with her index finger: highway 64 from Taos, west across the Gorge, cross 285 at Tres Piedras, continue on 64 and follow the signs to Durango. Piece of cake. Yeah, right. What the map didn't say was beware of wildlife. Was she taking a chance starting out well after dark? Probably. But as usual she was running late. Just another stressor. One she'd promised her shrink to work on.
Did you find these?
  • Her name is Edie
  • She's driving a rental
  • She's in New Mexico
  • She's going from Taos to Durango
  • It's cold out
  • She's sometimes inept–gets lost easily
  • Wildlife on the road could pose a danger
  • It's well after dark
  • She's running late
  • Being late is a stressor that she's promised her shrink to work on

Obviously, if your opening paragraph only has 5 lines or 8, the facts would match.

• Question: How do you know where (within your story) to start?
My response might surprise you.
• Answer: Next week!