Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Created to Compel: The Pros of Prologues

There may be as many cons as pros to prologues, and telling a story's end at its beginning can be especially risky. But choose your details well, and this doesn’t have to be the fate of your prologue or your novel.

Choose your details well, says Janet Burroway in the classic Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, and the result is a memorable sum of parts that yields a greater whole. The key is to start with a not-to-be-skipped opening and continue consistently to the tale's end. And when you use details, says Burroway, choose details that are sensory and matter to the story.

Starting a story by telling its ending, for example, as author Sara Gruen did in Water for Elephants, instantly raises questions. In this case, questions are good because they pique the reader’s curiosity; once that happens we’re hooked. In Elephants, the sensory details in the prologue, from the lingering smell of grease to the choice of music, are also details that matter because they literally set the stage for the life of the story’s narrator, Jacob Jankowski.

On this foundation, Gruen builds a strong narrative, starting with the first words spoken in Jacob’s no nonsense voice of experience. A nonagenarian nearing the end of his life, Jacob is still a pretty sharp cookie. Pulled in by the details of how his life began, we find ourselves hoping he stays that way.

To enhance the novel’s strong tone and memoir style and ground it in reality, Gruen uses sensory details throughout; in the death of Jacob's parents in a motorcar, for example, she does a masterful job of using detail to both bury and reveal the theme of survival. She then unfolds the tale of Jacob’s early days in veterinary school at Ivy League Cornell and the loss of his family and dreams. Since these are revealed in scene rather than through narration, the reader discovers that these are the first of many tests of Jacob's backbone. We know he survives; it’s in the prologue. What we’re interested in is how. We may even learn from him.

This is the writer’s task: to ground a story in a concrete, albeit created, world. The only way to do this well is to do it with the right details right from the start. "As a writer of fiction you are at constant pains not simply to say what you mean, but to mean more than you say," Burroway notes. "… if you write in abstractions or judgments, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and do our own generalizing and interpreting, we will be involved as participants in a real way."

Whether you opt for a prologue for narrative pull or start your story in medias res, the only way to reach a strong and satisfying conclusion is to engage the reader from the get-go with details that engage the senses and the mind.

For more on the use of details, see Janet Burroway's classic Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft.

Coming in September is the Ridgefield Writers Conference. For information and registration, visit Ridgefield Writers Conference.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Tips for the Submissions Process

It’s easier than ever to submit your writing for publication but harder to have the work published. Two keys to having your writing considered are knowing the publication and following the guidelines.

  • Genre: Make sure the publication considers writing in your genre, and adhere to the parameters.
  • Deadlines & Reading Periods: Many journals set deadlines and reading periods by genre so make sure you’re submitting at the right time.
  • Submission Methods: Most publications have an online portal; others direct writers to email. Use the method the publication specifies.
  • Formatting: The guidelines specify whether to attach your work, for example, as a Word document, or include it in the body of an email. Online portals usually require the upload of a specified file type.
  • Fees: Whether they’re called reading or processing fees, many literary journals now require a fee to submit work, so it’s up to you to decide whether the journal is worth the investment.
  • Print, Online, or Both: Some literary magazines are e-zines, meaning they’re online only. Few are print-only; most have a web and print presence. The better journals have at least one annual print publication, but pay attention to where your submission would appear if accepted and whether online acceptance also allows for print consideration.
  • Feedback: Some literary journals, such as Under the Sun, offer feedback whether the work is accepted or not. These journals are especially friendly to emerging writers.
  • Payment: Many literary magazines pay writers for their accepted work and not just in copies. As you gain experience, consider sending your work to publications that offer monetary remuneration.
  • Prior Publication: Some publications accept and even welcome previously published work. But be honest about when and where the original work, including blog posts, was published.
  • Rights: Given the ubiquity of web content, more publications specify the rights they offer in return for publishing your work. Among the most common is First North American Serial, the right to be the first publisher of your work one time in North America.
  • Simultaneous Submissions: If you send your work to more than one publication, seek journals that accept simultaneous submissions. Most publications do but ask you to let them know if your work is accepted elsewhere. If a publication says “no simultaneous”, respect the journal’s requirement.
  • Theme: Because of their longer shelf life, anthologies are great places to send work. Since many are theme-based, check the specifications on how tightly or loosely the theme is interpreted.
  • Contact Information: Some publications read blind, meaning they don’t want to be swayed by what your name may tell them about you, so make sure you follow the parameters.
Duotrope, NewPages and Poets & Writers Classifieds are free online resources for places to send your work. When in doubt about whether your piece is a fit, query the journal’s editor. When when you send your work, make sure it’s polished and original. If you’ve made it through the above list, you’ll make it through the guidelines.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Second Thoughts and the Way Art Works

If you’ve ever had second thoughts about your work — and who hasn’t — you’re in great company.

In a 2017 podcast of The New Yorker Radio Hour, rock legend Bruce Springsteen spoke candidly about his career and 2016 autobiography, Born to Run, with New Yorker editor David Remnick. The 55-minute podcast is worth a listen for Springsteen’s hard-earned wisdom. Among his most valuable insights was one he learned from someone else.

Springsteen was discussing the making of the iconic 1975 album Born to Run and a song of the same name from which the autobiography derives its title. When asked what he had hoped for in the album and the song, Springsteen said he wanted a record and a sound "that felt like this is the last record you are ever gonna hear and then the apocalypse…”.

Although Springsteen achieved that hard-driving, vanishing-point, Road Warrior quality in the song and the album, he had second thoughts about its release. While Springsteen admitted having “second thoughts about everything”, he was especially concerned about the album and at one point threw it into a swimming pool. “The record came down, and the album was supposed to be done and I'm not sure if I was ready for it to be done because it would mean people were gonna hear it,” Springsteen said.

Then he spoke with music critic, manager, and record producer Jon Landau on the subject of imperfection, exposure and art. “Sometimes the things that are wrong with something are the same things that make that thing great,” Landau said. “That’s the way it is in life, and that’s the way art works.”

In this is freedom, and, thankfully, the way art works.

For the full interview with Bruce Springsteen on The New Yorker Radio Hour, click on Bruce Springsteen Talks with David Remnick. 

For a review of Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story on the Washington Independent Review of Books, visit “A tale of dignity and dedication amid the current refugee crisis”.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

No (Perfect) Time to Write

I was talking with a colleague recently and found myself saying, “I used to set my schedule based on the ‘perfect time’ to do [whatever]. Now I realize there is no perfect time, especially to write.”

Seeking the perfect time to write usually means we don’t feel like writing. The underlying fear is that if we don’t feel like it, we won’t write well and we’ll have wasted time and effort by trying. But writing is still 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration, and as with exercise, the feeling of accomplishment comes at the end of the workout, not the beginning.

If we agree that we need to make time to write, we can treat our work as we would any high-priority item. That means we don’t treating writing like an item on a to-do list but as a regular discipline. Here are some tips to move in that direction:

  • Develop a schedule. If your project has a deadline, you’ve got the end point so fill in the steps between.
  • Consider your personality. Some writers like generating prose first thing, when they’re not in “edit” mode, and editing late in the day, when their patience with bad writing has ebbed.
  • Consider your project. What are your goals for it? If you don’t track your goals, you’re not likely to accomplish them.
  • Consider your vocation as a writer. What are your goals for you? As before, if you don’t track your goals, you’re not likely to accomplish them.
  • Inventory and prioritize your projects so that if one loses momentum, you can switch gears.
  • Vary your genres to flex different writing muscles, develop a broader body of work and discover other writing talents.
  • When your schedule stops working, consider adjusting the day, time or length of time spent writing.
  • Consider the time you spend writing as an investment in your work and yourself.
Another implication of the fear of not having time to write isn’t time but volition, the strength of will to keep going. Writers throughout the ages have found incentives such as these:

  • Leave off writing at a place where you know what happens or what to do next in your piece, but don’t write it. This was among Ernest Hemingway’s habits.
  • Edit and/or revise the prior day’s work to prime the writing pump for today.
  • Keep a word count for each writing session to track your progress.
  • Periodically print a hardcopy of what you’ve written so that you can edit it on paper, and include the edits when you go back to the project.
  • Cultivate a relationship with your writing by noting the progress in your prose before and after editing.
  • Talk regularly with an inspirational friend and/or writing colleague.
  • Don't listen to the negative internal chatter that says you don’t have time to write; you’ll only talk yourself out of it.
  • Use downtime to plan. Think about what you’ll do next when you next sit down to write.
  • Take time to enjoy your work.
  • Celebrate victories, even when they’re smaller than your overall goal. You can’t complete a project unless you complete the individual steps to get there.
  • Give yourself time off. You need and deserve it.
The great thing about developing a writing schedule that fits with the rest of your life is that it doesn’t have to fit the whole rest of your life.

Do you have a writing query to share, email Word for Words.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The End From the Beginning

We have a tradition on my mother’s central Italian side of the family that says whatever happens in the first twelve days of the New Year is what will happen in each ensuing month. I was quick to point out the fallacy in this superstition, which is that whatever happens the first day of January would need to apply to the remaining month. Yet, the concept of a matter’s end being present in its beginning got me thinking that the end of a story is often derived by or foreshadowed at its start.

Since it’s near the end of the year—and this has been one long year—my mind takes the path of least literary resistance to use, as an example, the first Harry Potter book, where early in the saga we read of Ginny Weasley’s crush on Harry. Six books later the end of the matter is confirmed; yet, the seeds of its fruition were planted at the start.

As writers, we unwind our stories, from flash to full-length novels, creating a trail we ask readers to follow. We ask them to believe what we say of our characters’ past, present and future through backstory, scene and foreshadow as our plots unfold. We want readers to believe us and to forget us as they immerse themselves in a world of our creation, even in the offer of hope for a desired outcome that initially seems impossible.

We do, in a sense, what the prophet Isaiah said that God does. We create a purpose for our stories and a plan to achieve that purpose, and we ask readers to place their confidence in our ability to lead them. It’s not just the foreknowledge of our story’s events that we want people to trust. No. We often write, as William Zinsser said, to learn, to discover our stories and the people in them. Yet, we aim to exert mastery over our creation. We want readers to rely on us as we speak, to the point where they forget that it's we who speak.

Is this arrogance, this apparent reach for the divine? If we aim for omniscience, omnipresence or omnipotence, then yes. But for the writer who aims merely to create a plan and be true to it, to have a purpose and carry it out, to offer the best words in their most suitable form, it’s a creative act, and in this is dignity.

“I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: ‘My plan will take place, and I will do all My will.’” Isaiah 46:10

Blessings and peace to you and yours now and throughout the New Year.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Kernel of Truth: When Real Life Experience Informs Fiction

Remember when you said of a story, “Wow, that sounds like it really happened”?

In this instance, we’re not talking about verisimilitude — the appearance or semblance of truth — but about an entire story that feels, on an emotional level, like it could have taken place because some aspect of it actually did. One key to writing fiction that has a real experience, or experiences, at its heart is knowing to what extent real events should inform fiction. 

As we writers go through our lives, we often find that personal experiences foment ideas that form the basis of our fiction. But beware of sticking too closely to experience. Why? Because, as Robert Olen Butler warns in his seminal From where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, “literal memory is your enemy”.

Why is this? Because memory constrains you to the facts of your experience or to the facts as you recall them. Either way, you’re constrained. The reasoning? As Butler cautions, “What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination.”

It’s this rich soil of imagination that organically germinates the seeds of fiction. The richness of imagination also enables the writer to conceive a story that is more than a little inspired by life. For the most part, this approach can work wonderfully, until the moment when it doesn’t.

At this point, the writer can try to rationalize away the bump in the road by telling herself that’s the way it really happened. This may be true, but it doesn’t mean the event should play out the same way in your fiction.

One way to tell when a section of your story isn’t served by its real life counterpart is precisely when you find yourself defending that point in the piece in just this way. Such moments might stand out more than we writers realize, but we often don’t notice them because we’re too enamored with the reminiscence of the real life event to see that the moment will bring readers out of the fictional world we’ve so carefully constructed instead of moving them effortlessly (or apparently so) through it.

If, or rather when, you come up against such a moment, ask yourself these questions. Why is the reader brought out of the story at this precise point? Which fiction element, or elements, of characterization, pacing, plot progression, setting, prose, etc., is not served by the real event? What would serve the work, the story and its people, better?

Be honest with yourself in answering these questions, and if your fictional work is based in more than one point on reality, be prepared to ask the question more than once. The result will be worth the effort. Great fiction often carries a kernel of truth, but usually more in emotional truth than in the facts.

For more on Robert Olen Butler’s From where YouDream: The Process of Writing Fiction.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Wisdom of the Ages: Growing Your Character’s Knowledge Over Time

We’ve talked about the importance of a character's voice matching her age, but we also need to make sure the character’s wisdom matches it, too, an especially tricky feat for characters who are young in age and/or maturity.

Whether you're writing for adults or younger readers, your story may include a younger character who matures over the course of your piece. While maturity can result from the passing of time, the gaining of experience or both, we need to make sure that what the character realizes about his or her life - and how he or she expresses that knowledge - matches the individual's stage of life.

One reason it can difficult to tell that we've run ahead of the character's maturity level in writing her thoughts and dialogue is that wisdom reads well, regardless of age. So when we read a particularly wise bit of insight that's also been written well, we tend to feel that we've accomplished our goal. In one sense, this may be true, because the character has made progress and because our prose has also. However, we have to make sure that we haven't given the character either more insight than he or she should have at that age, and that we haven't framed the insight in way that goes beyond the character's intended age.

Some characters, though young, are wise beyond their years. What we want, however, is to make sure we develop the character at a believable rate. If you're wondering whether you have given one of your characters, especially one that is younger, more insight than is believable within the context of her life and your story, ask yourself these questions:

- Has enough happened in this person's life for her to realistically have this piece of wisdom?
- Does the prose accurately reflect the character's personality and stage of life?

There's nothing wrong with having a smart character. We just need to make sure the person's wisdom, and how she expresses it, match where the character is in her life.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Making the Most of the Ridgefield Writers Conference

Preparing for and attending a writers’ conference require time and energy. These tips for before, during and after the Ridgefield Writers Conference should help you make the most of the event and create a foundation for what comes after.

Before the Conference:
Faculty: Research your faculty workshop leader, and prepare a list of questions about your work and the craft of writing in advance. Also research other faculty, in case you want to talk with them or work with them in the future.
Panels and Keynote: Research the panelists and keynote speaker, and bring your questions to the Q&A sessions. If time runs out, you may be able ask questions afterward.
Website: Study the conference website, especially the Writers Resources section, for helpful information. Keep checking the site for updates.
Workshops: Carefully review all the information from your workshop leader, to learn as much as possible about the art and craft of your chosen genre.
Registration: Arrive early to get a feel for the event and to meet your fellow writers, the faculty and the coordinators. Also carefully review the information in your registration packet.

During the Conference:
Networking: Get to know your fellow writers, the workshop faculty and conference coordinators. Exchange business cards and contact information with others so that you can keep in touch. Compare notes with other writers about what you’re learning.
Book and Resource Tables: Visit the faculty book table to take home fine examples of work by these experienced writers. Also visit the resource table to collect as much information as you can.
Readings: Sign up and read your work at the attendee reading time on Saturday afternoon; it will give you practice reading your work before a friendly audience.
Panels and Keynote: Meet the panelists and keynote speaker, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Workshop: Keep any reading lists your workshop leader provides, and read and retain all the workshop handouts. Where you need clarity about feedback or other workshop information, be sure to ask questions. Before you leave the conference, aim to have some idea of the next steps to take in your writing life. If you’re not sure, come to the What’s Next in the Writing Life breakout session on Saturday afternoon.

After the Conference:
Collaboration: Consider collaborating with a fellow writer. Also consider working with a faculty workshop leader (yours or someone else) after the conference.
Networking: Keep in touch with your fellow writers and others you meet during the conference.
Feedback: Give the workshop feedback you receive from your faculty leader and fellow writers time to gel after the conference. Your workshop leader provides a worthwhile overview and details on how to improve your work, as do your compatriots, especially if a particular critique arises more than once. Your fellow writers also bring another key perspective to the table — that of the audience.
Next Steps: Consider making a list of next steps for after the conference, and ask your faculty workshop leader for guidance on this. Ask the conference coordinators about the best resources to meet your writing needs. Considering creating your own writing community, and seek opportunities to stay involved and active in your writing life. Check the conference website for final information.

Parting Note
If attending a writers’ conference sounds as if it involves more than just inspiration, it does. But consider this: “Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn’t work.” Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One


For more on the conference, visit Ridgefield Writers Conference.