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.