mentor

Not sure how many of you have had the chance to catch the first season of David Letterman’s Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, but Letterman’s return to television has made me realize how much I miss those “Top Ten” lists he used to rattle off on the Late Show.

If Letterman had done a survey of the top ten questions writers were asked while sitting in a bar, it might have gone something like this:

10. Didn’t I see your book on a bargain table at B&N?

9. Does your agent go by 007 or just Bond, James Bond?

8. What’s it like to sit about in your pajamas all day chasing the muse?

7. You wouldn’t write about me now would you? Would you?

 6. How’s the day job?

5. Is Stephen King a little edgy or what?

4. What are those voices in your head telling you?

3. Are you sure I haven’t read any of your work?

2. Who gets more in royalties–you or J.K. Rowling?

And

1. Need an idea for your next novel? Well, pull up a stool. Today’s your lucky day.

Obviously, this list is all in jest–and thank God I’m not a comedy writer looking for a gig at SNL any time soon.  One thing that occurred to me while creating this list, however, is how many times we find ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum, in a position where we’re too timid to ask another writer about his/her process or about how to navigate the craft because we don’t want to appear foolish, or worse, ignorant in front of someone whose work or career inspires us.

I’ve always believed in the importance of a generous and supportive writing community.  There is so much we can learn from one another. I’d love to open up the conversation and take this opportunity to invite you to contact me via my contact page with any questions you may have concerning the writing life, craft, publishing or otherwise. I’ll do my best to address these questions in future blog posts and hopefully, others will feel compelled to weigh in and add their comments and/or experiences to the mix as well.

My hope, really my wish, is that this forum of sorts will become a soft place to land for those writers who need a little guidance and/or the occasional boost so they feel emboldened enough to propel themselves forward. After all, there’s nothing more comforting than knowing you’re not swimming in the big pool alone. I’m excited to hear from you.


Photo Credit: Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

books 2

I’ve been a subscriber of Poets & Writers magazine for almost a decade now.  It never fails to deliver and has been a resource I’ve returned to time and time again. One of the features I enjoy most is called “Page One,” where the first lines of up and coming books and collections are highlighted.

Here are a few favorites from the January/February issue:

“When I was a girl I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep.” From Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro (Knopf, January 2019).

“You deserve your beautiful life.” From Loves You by Sarah Gambito (Persea Books, January 2019).

The reason I love this feature so much is because it reminds one how important those first lines are when it comes to building trust between reader and writer.  A reader wants to be drawn into the story, to be given a reason to care either about the character or what is to happen next.  A reader also wants to be entertained and perhaps, be able to escape the real world, even if just for a little while. As writers, hopefully, we’re able to deliver on all accounts.

Obviously, there are a myriad of ways one can open a story.  You can:

Set the Mood

Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night.—from “How to be an Other Woman” by Lorrie Moore, Self-Help: Stories, Vintage Contemporaries, 1985.

Introduce a Character

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.—from “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, Collected Stories, Library Classics, 2009.

Have a Conversation

“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”—from “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories, Scribner, 2007.

Ask a Question

How could a grown man with any self-respect sit in a Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory at eleven o’clock in the morning and eat a hot fudge sundae with mint chip ice cream, hold the nuts?—from “Nerves” by Ann Packer, Mendocino and Other Stories, Vintage Contemporaries, 1994.

Make a Statement

I know when people will die.—from “Wait Till You See Me Dance” by Deb Olin Unferth, New American Stories, ed. Ben Marcus, Vintage Contemporaries, 2015.

Be Active

The girls were searching Arleen’s room and had just come upon her journal.—from “The Girls” by Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege, Vintage Contemporaries, 2015.

Shock

Here is a snake with a girl in his mouth.—from “Passengers, Remain Calm” by Dan Chaon, Among the Missing, Random House, 2001.

No matter how you choose to begin, the opening ought to pique the reader’s curiosity and propel the story forward.  Read the examples above again.  Ask yourself whether they pass muster. Snake with a girl in its mouth? Curious? Heck, yeah.  Propel the story forward? Definitely.  You get the picture.

Author Colum McCann wrote an article in the Guardian back in May 2017 titled, “So you Want to be a Writer? Essential Tips for Novelists.” He cautions writers not to stuff too much into the first line and/or page, that one ought to consider the opening a doorway.  He says, “Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house.”  Makes sense, don’t you think?  Get in, but let the story unfold in it’s own time.

One last thought.  Remember you don’t have to perfect the first line before you dive into writing your story draft.  Sometimes it takes a while for things to gel enough before one discovers the best way to invite the reader in.  All I can say is trust the process.  It will come.


Do you have a favorite first line? Feel free to leave a comment below and tell us why it resonates with you.


Photo Credit: Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

POV

How do I know which point-of-view (POV) to use when writing my story?  It’s a question I’ve heard over and over again in workshops and/or critique groups I’ve participated in.  And yes, I’ve raised my hand alongside everyone else in hopes that someday a profound, no-fail formula will sprout up to demystify it for us all.  Sad to say, I haven’t come across one yet.  In the meantime, here a few things to consider when making the choice of who can best tell your story:

Point-of-View centers around two decisions one must make up-front:

  1. Whose story is this? From whose perspective will the story be told?
  2. How much distance will the POV character/reader have from the events of the story?

Point-of-View can be broken down into four categories:

First-Person

Seems pretty obvious, but in first-person the main character is referred to as “I.”  The character can either be the protagonist, a participant, or if it suits your fancy, a disinterested observer.

Most times the first-person POV is written in the past tense, simply because the narrator must know how the story will end, which means he/she can never die in the story—that is, unless the narrator is a ghost or some other-worldly being.

The main advantage to writing in first-person is the intimacy it provides the reader.  The story unfolds simultaneously for both character and reader, thus allowing the reader to personally invest in the story.

This, however, can also be considered a disadvantage, since the reader is then restricted to only the knowledge and/or information the POV already possesses and makes the character unreliable at best.

There are a few other things to consider when you choose first-person. The POV character must be in every scene; otherwise, there’s no story.  Also, the POV character can never physically describe him/herself from the outside. Everything must rely on introspection—that is, unless there’s a mirror or shiny surface nearby.

Still, if you ask me, the intimacy and the degree of emotional resonance the first-person can create for the reader–well, it might be worth giving it a try.

Second-Person

In second-person, the POV character is referred to as “you” or “your.”

The one main advantage to the second-person POV is that it allows the reader to totally immerse and become a participant in the story.  This works well for shorter pieces, such as flash fiction, but can be difficult to maintain over, say, 300-pages.

Second-person can also be used to step in for a first-person narrator who feels alienated from him/herself.  Many of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s collection, Self-Help fall into this category.  Check them out and see how they make you feel as a reader.  What do you notice?

Third-Person Limited

The third-person limited character is referred to as “he” or “she.”

Third-person limited allows the reader to focus more on the story at hand rather than on the specific worldview of the narrator.  You also have the ability to withhold information to maintain suspense.

One disadvantage, of course, is the perceived distance between the narrator and reader.  Yet, there are different lens at the author’s disposal:

  1. Close Third-Person, which resembles first-person in that the events are narrated from a point closely related to that of one character but told in plain English instead of in the character’s own diction. To read an example of close third-person, try Mary Gaitskill’s “Tiny Smiling Daddy.
  2. Third-person Objective, which uses a cinematic approach, describing the events from a camera-like perspective where the reader is limited to what can be seen and/or heard without going into the consciousness of any of the characters. A good example of third-person objective is Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”

You’ll find that most contemporary literature is written in third-person.  It could be because it’s the most forgiving.

Third-Person Omniscient

The third-person omniscient narrator is not a character in the story, but simply the all-knowing presence telling the story as it plays out. The reader has the ability to observe the story from many angles and perspectives at once.  There are zero restrictions.

This POV is probably most associated with classic literature. Think Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. There aren’t too many writers who use this today, even though it sounds fabulous to have the ability to know and see everything taking place.  Who doesn’t want to be a god, right?


So, there you go—point-of-view in a nutshell.  Still, unsure which is the best fit for your story?  As an exercise, try taking a piece of your own writing and rewrite it in a different viewpoint.  How does it change the story?  How does it relate to your reader?  After doing this a few times, one will begin to grow on you.  Trust me.

reflection

Backstory can become an unwieldy beast if one doesn’t keep it in check. Just imagine editor Maxwell Perkins sitting at his desk, whittling away 69,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s behemoth Look Homeward, Angel. The final manuscript still weighed in at a lofty 544-pages.  Now there’s a writer who–well, just maybe–got a little carried away with backstory.

At the same time, not enough backstory can leave a reader confused and frustrated, especially if one is trying to puzzle out the motivation behind the character’s actions.  For instance, Jay Gatsby’s obsession, and later love, for Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby wouldn’t nearly be as tragic if we hadn’t known the little tidbit about Gatsby and Daisy briefly meeting before he was sent off to Europe to fight in the Great War.

[If you haven’t had the opportunity to read these novels, I suggest giving them a chance, if for no other reason than to see how backstory can either help or hinder.]


There are a few things to consider when it comes to deciding how much backstory is appropriate:

Does the backstory tie directly into the scene at hand?

If you find you’re spending more time explaining what has happened, instead of what is happening in the scene, you may want to dial it back.  You don’t want to stifle the story’s forward momentum, or leave your reader stifling a yawn.

Does the backstory help provide a deeper understanding of what’s at stake for the main character?

Backstory needs to have purpose.  As was pointed out with the Gatsby example above, knowing Gatsby met Daisy before going to war helps us understand where the origin of Gatsby’s obsession took root.  In fact, it explains why he’s gone to such great lengths to impress her with his lavish parties that just happen to be directly across the bay from the Buchanan estate.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  Now if we were told Gatsby enjoyed sailing and he spent his Saturday afternoons sailing the West Egg Bay—well, so what?

Is there an opportunity to dramatize the character’s past in some way, instead of dumping an information load on the reader?

The surest way to stop a story in its tracks is to interrupt the scene to explain why something is going on.  Could one show the reader how the past affects the character by inserting a clue into the dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist? Could the main character have a moment of internal thought while driving to his father’s house?  Could the character wake from a dream about the last time he went to a bar with his now deceased buddy? The main goal is to keep your characters active in the story so that the reader stays intrigued by what lies ahead.


Overall, you could say adding backstory is like adding a pinch of salt to a pot of chicken noodle soup.  A little goes a long way.  Give your readers the information they need to immerse themselves fully into your story, but don’t force their interest.  Always, always keep them wanting to read more.

 

handshake

Getting to know your character is sort of like going on a blind date.  You’ve heard great things, but until you meet, it’s pretty difficult to know just what you’re getting.  If you’re lucky, the two of you will hit it off right away.  But more often than not, it takes a while longer to develop a sense of trust between you and your character.

There are several exercises out there to help break the ice between the two of you.  Many writers simply start by filling out a questionnaire, listing everything from the character’s hair color to his/her favorite meal.  These are good for getting down the essentials, but in order to figure out character motivation, I’ve always found it more beneficial to sit my character down and ask the “meaty” questions.

Here’s a list to get you started:

  1. The most painful thing a friend could say about me is _______.
  2. Once when I was alone in an elevator I _________.
  3. Three things I wish I’d never said are __________.
  4. I love the taste of ___________.
  5. I’m willing to fight for ________.
  6. I once caught _________.
  7. One Thanksgiving I __________.
  8. I’ve always wanted to go to _________ because _________.
  9. My father/mother always told me  ________.
  10. My idea of a boring day is ________.
  11. Three things I could never live without are __________.
  12. I want to be remembered for _________.
  13. The most embarrassing thing that ever happen to me is __________.
  14. My biggest regret is that _________.
  15. Thursday nights are good for _________.
  16. As a kid I was known for __________.
  17. When we first got married I realized _________.
  18. Five things you’ll find in my bathroom are ________.
  19. The toughest thing I’ve ever done is _________.
  20. My favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon is ________.

Try to write out as much detail as you can when answering these questions. If these questions don’t work for you, feel free to jot down your own.  The point of this exercise is to get your characters talking.  Their responses may or may not factor into your final story; however, by the end you ought to have a more well-rounded idea of what makes your characters tick.

As an added bonus, this exercise can also be helpful when you’re having trouble getting started on something new because it gives you a chance to let go of the inner critic while you sit back and listen to what your character has to say for him/herself.  You never know where the conversation might take you.