Monday, August 27, 2018

On Storytelling: Tell Me a Story and Tell It Well

I was talking with a colleague about how we could partner to benefit an area cultural organization when she said, “I don't get enough stories coming in.” The context of the comment was that although people are adept at promoting themselves, their work and their organizations, they’re not always skilled at explaining why others should care about what they’re offering. This reminded me of a question my editor asked early in my press correspondence days and later when I showed him the first draft of a novel: “Why should I care?”

Hearing this question sparks varied responses among writers, but before we explore what the question means let’s start with what it says. “Why should I care?” In an always-on world where we’re constantly barraged by demands, real and manufactured, on our time and energy, this question isn’t general, as in “Why should we care?” It’s personal. “Why should I care?” The ability to answer this question within the context of story is the stuff of effective storytelling.

My editor’s comment about was meant to get under my skin, and it did. He was a curmudgeonly newspaper editor of the ilk a budding writer hopes for, the kind who can assign and edit pieces, who knows good writing, and who isn’t afraid to call out bad writing when he sees it. And, yes, there is such a thing as poor writing just as there is poor storytelling.

I vividly recall that same editor’s comment after one too many of my convoluted early pieces crossed his desk. “You may understand what you’re trying to say here, but I don’t. And if I don’t, other people probably won’t either.” If I was tempted to think he just didn’t “understand” my work, his opinion was validated shortly thereafter when my journalism instructor said the same in the same frustrated tone. She then explained that my pieces lacked organization. For example, in a personality profile, I’d have some details of the subject’s education in the lead, some strewn throughout the body paragraphs, and some at the end. When seasoned journalists scatter information throughout a piece like breadcrumbs, they do so for a reason, and they make sure to connect those details with their immediate and larger context. A novice oblivious to the need for such connections comes across as disorganized.

My problem was that I was writing the story largely as I’d conducted the interview. Once I learned the problem, however, I created a story template with one section for each element of the interview: lead, background, experience, education, future plans, personal observations, and “Anything you’d like to add?” For a long while, I kept to this order. The articles weren’t spellbinding, but they made sense. Once I became adept at using order, I began moving the sections around.

Once I grew skilled at that, I started selecting and strategically placing details, making sure to create connections between them and their context of sections, adding transitions to make the points clear to the reader without dumbing down the material. Before I sent my first story with this new-to-me approach, I warned my editor, starting with something like, “Now that two years have passed …” It took that long to go from drill to skill, the drill of retaining the same format long enough for what I had practiced to pass into skill. Finally, I could swim without holding onto the sides of the pool.

This turning point was at once thrilling and scary. I had gone from reporting to storytelling while sticking to the facts. The same general principles of drill and skill apply to fiction:
  • Write a paragraph using the who, what, where, when, why, and how of journalism to explain your story to you.
  • Pay special attention to the question “why” and to how you answer it because your response will become the foundation of the rest of your piece. You might answer the question in these ways: Why is this story important to me? Why would it be important to others?
  • Consider the story within the story. Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg approach to writing was minimalist in wording and presentation but with a hundred feet of meaning beneath. Even if you don’t use what’s under your story, and it’s usually best not to, make sure you understand what the real story is.
  • When you tell your story, tell it with a specific audience in mind. This may be a friend, a mentor, a family member, a lover, a pet, or even yourself. It’s less important who the audience is and more important that your words aren’t an end in themselves. If they are, your audience will sense that they’re not important to anyone besides you and stop reading soon after they begin.
  • Consider answering these questions: Why do I want to write this story? How did it begin in my mind, and what keeps it going? The answers can help you determine the story’s scope and length, which is especially handy when you’re deciding whether your piece is flash, short or novel.
Telling a story well means telling it with the kind of generosity of heart and spirit that doesn’t pander to the audience on the one hand or talk largely to itself on the other.

What story are you working on now? Why are you writing it? Is there another story you’re not writing, perhaps one you fear writing but would be worth exploring using the above questions?

Prompt: Write a logline of 25 words or fewer. A logline is an ultra-short description of your story that will force you to make sure you know what the piece is about, help you decide whether the story worth telling, and pitch it when the time comes. Here’s an example from FilmDaily.tv (see if you can tell which film it describes): “The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.”

The late Ursula Le Guin, a master storyteller and teacher, said, “Once we’re keenly and clearly aware of these elements of out craft, we can use and practice them until—the point of all the practice—we don’t have to think about them consciously at all, because they have become skills.” For more, see Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Study Poetry for Variety and Depth of Prose

When writers ask how they can improve their prose, their question often assumes there’s one specific thing they can do that will immediately make their writing better overall. A more realistic way to approach the notion of better is one piece at a time, with guidelines along the way.

The first default answer to the question of how to write better is to read more and to read better quality writing. Reading and studying poetry—good poetry—is a great approach. Why? Because poetry is all about imagery and sound, and in good poetry no words are wasted. If a word is there, it’s necessary, and it’s precise. Here’s an example from “Still I Rise”, by Maya Angelou.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

It helps to read a poem at least three times: once silently, once aloud, and then aloud again with emphases on different words. Once you’ve really heard the poem you can better analyze it. Once you analyze it you can do a better job of applying what you’ve learned to your writing.

For example, in the first line of the above stanza of “Still I Rise”, “moons” comes before “suns”, the words are plural, and the word “like” is repeated. For more than one reason, such as the night of adversity coming before the dawn of a new day, the moon reference comes first. The plural of “moons” and “suns” gives the sense of the passage of time, a lot of time, and the references are reminders that the moon and sun go through stages and mark off seasons. The word “like” is repeated for emphasis.

Why these choices? First, there is an inevitable quality to the appearance of the moon and sun, as affirmed in the second line’s reference to the “certainty of tides”, and there is the sense of a great reach up and out of the water into the sky with the comparison to “hopes springing high”. What if Angelou had used “aspirations” instead of “hopes” and “leaping” instead of “springing”? Aspirations is a longer, less accessible word that feels academic, as if it comes from the mind. Hopes come from the heart. And given the reference to water in the word “tides”, it’s more appropriate for these hopes to spring up like a fountain than to leap up, for example, like a deer from the earth.

While writers may downplay the value of a thesaurus, it’s a great way to write more precisely. Take, for example, this sentence: A bird sings joyfully in the summer sunshine. The grammar is fine and worse sentences have been written, but it’s a generic sentence that lacks a sense of place. Here’s an alternative: Perched atop the maple, the cardinal trills in the midsummer sun. In the second sentence, the details are more vivid and specific, including the type of bird, its location, its song and the time of day.

Two other elements of good poetry are theme and variation. Returning for a moment to the Angelou poem, there is a sense of both hope and adversity, as found in the refrain “Still I'll rise.” This sentence is different from the title “Still I Rise”. The sentence implies that at times it’s only by sheer force of will that I’ll get up from the place where others have relegated me. In the title, however, the rising is ongoing, like the return of the moon and sun with each day and changing seasons. The element of the eternal in the title may even result partly from that force of will. The selections of “I’ll rise” and “I Rise” are intentional, and the choices were made with the poem’s theme of overcoming in mind.

Sometimes writers think longer or more complex is better. Rather than strive merely for complexity, strive for precision in your prose and variation in sentence structure and length. Listen to how your work sounds. Use the same guidelines as you would for reading a poem. Read once silently, once aloud and then aloud again with emphases on different words. How does the writing sound? Does it have a lyrical or musical quality? Does it evoke an image? Maya Angelou’s "Still I Rise" appeared in 1978. The words mattered then because they evoked and honored history and because the words claimed a future. Choose your words wisely so that readers will remember them, too.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Logistics of Writing Yield Self-Discovery

Logistics questions, such as how to find the right age audience for your work, describing your writing, and crafting an author bio and a synopsis, are invaluable for writers for two main reasons. First, they help you learn to present your writing to the world. Second, they help you understand who you are as a writer and where you want to go with your work.

Finding Your Audience
To determine the best age of audience for your work, write first; decide later. Emerging and established fiction and nonfiction writers often enjoy reading and writing in varied genres. I worked as a development editor for Scholastic Publishing when the Harry Potter books were the rage but didn’t read them because young adult (YA) isn’t a genre I usually write in or read. Three years ago, on a friend’s advice, I read all the Harry Potter books and loved them. I still don’t write YA, but I do read and edit it and enjoy the stories.

Once you get writing fiction and/or nonfiction, aim to develop a body of work—three or four pieces, to start—that you then polish. To determine the age of audience that best fits your creations, consider who would enjoy reading them. You might show the pieces to a trusted mentor, faculty member or friend, and listen for this question: “You know what this reminds me of?” If they don’t offer the insight, ask. But ask after they’ve read your work instead of before so that the question doesn’t lead in a particular direction.

As you reread your work, ask yourself the same question. What you’ve written might remind you of a particular piece or writer. Besides these steps, a Google or Amazon search on your working title will yield a sense of how your piece could be categorized and whether others have written something similar.

Describing Your Writing
The above steps also apply to describing your writing, but it’s impossible to choose one description to cover all your work. Most writers branch out into new genres, styles and media, and these are likely to morph further as you hone your skills and as new categories are created. Meanwhile, to describe something you’ve written, compare it to similar works, contrast it with other works, and note its main differentiator from other stories. To hone this skill, reduce your description word count to 100, then 50 then 25. The exercise will help your writing, too.

Describing Your Writing Self
Besides describing your writing, you’ll need to describe yourself as a writer. The usual first step is to create a list of writing credits. You probably have credits even though you may not think so, for example, blog posts, newsletter blurbs, and online comments. Maybe you’ve even edited or given feedback on someone else’s writing. You may have done an internship that required writing, reading or editing (proofreading counts here). Just make sure your list is accurate and factual.

Writing an Author Bio
You can then develop the list into an author’s bio; do a Google search to find examples. But what if you’ve never written a thing that has seen the light of day except as reflected from your laptop, iPad or iPhone? Not to worry. You still have experiences, priorities and aspirations. Here’s an example of how to present them. “Adele Annesi is a first generation Italian-American inspired by the land of sunflowers. Her heritage, culture and travel have provided insights into this rich and varied society that she is using to craft a series of short stories set in il bel paese.” Writers even talk about their pets and hobbies, the more original the better.

Crafting a Synopsis
I’ve saved tips on writing a synopsis for last because it’s among the hardest forms to write and usually isn’t required until/unless you’re pitching a novel or a nonfiction book. The reason it’s difficult is because it requires you to condense a long work into a short space, and because the requirements vary depending on what and for whom you’re writing the synopsis. In reality, a good way to learn how to do this is via Google search, including in the search box the kind of synopsis you need (book, essay, novel, etc.). Four reliable sources to add to your search box are the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, Poets & Writers, The Writer and Writer’s Digest.

Like other writing questions, logistics queries are often best posed once you start writing. But you don’t need a large body of work to learn how to present your writing and yourself to the world. Exploring questions about audience and self-description en route will help you understand who you are and how you write, which connects you with kindred spirits. Since you and your writing will change, you’ll keep discovering new insights along the way.

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.