Monday, March 28, 2016

where to start your story

Whether you're just getting started as a writer, or you're a writer starting a new project, you soon learn to expect trouble. You may encounter difficulty knowing how to start your story. You may having trouble putting your best thoughts into words.You also learn to take well-meaning advice with a hefty dose of discretion. I'm not convinced that Ann Patchett or Elizabeth Gilbert would agree with Dean Koontz on this matter:

Nevertheless, I hear this in my critique group again and again: "The writing is good...but the story doesn't really begin until (let's say) page 37," when what they mean is the action or conflict doesn't begin until page 37. But those are two different things. In thrillers, fantasies, and mysteries the story may jump right into the action...but, in literary fiction, the author may first need to set the stage so the conflict that follows has a similar sense of urgency.

For example, in "Talk Before Sleep" by Elizabeth Berg, the story begins with casseroles in the refrigerator and the memory of hanging laundry on the line--pretty tame stuff until we learn that the protagonist is battling end-stage breast cancer. As she plumbs the depths of emotion and friendship, her story becomes as gut-wrenching as if it began like a medical thriller--with the first plunge of the scalpel blade and the blood stained surgical drapes.

In "The Far End of Happy," Kathryn Craft begins by describing the protagonist's diary. It's beautifully written, and familiar to anyone who keeps a journal. Nothing special until you learn that her marriage is coming to an end. Nothing to get excited about until you learn that her marriage ends with her husband's suicide. That comes later.

In Anne Tyler's "A Spool of Blue Thread," the story starts with an older couple getting ready for bed, the woman removing the hairpins from her topknot while her husband pulls his socks off. Ho-hum. Until the phone rings, and life as they know it changes in a heartbeat.

Emotional engagement is as important in literary fiction as explosive action is in sci-fi and thrillers. The conflict may not unfold right away, but the emotional energy builds just as convincingly whether the action begins on page 1, or page 15, or page 37. Begin with whatever draws the reader in. It might be emotional or psychological narrative, lyrical prose, or world-building. Don't worry yourself silly over the page numbers.

No matter how you start your story, you will sometimes have trouble finding the words to express what you know so well.

For my next post, think about how you would describe the color red. Then describe it to a blind person.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

unanticipated delight, deep contemplation, and pure joy

Not many people learn to love the woods in the winter. Not many people I know like winter at all.

Most of my friends avoid venturing out when the weather turns cold and snowy...when the landscape turns soft and deep and white. But then, not many of them are lucky enough to have a house in the woods with a stream behind it where the current curls into ripples that freeze hard around the stones and glitter in the sunlight. Beneath the ice.

We just see it differently.

Where I see soft gray shadows stretching out across a blank white canvas, they see sooty slush.

Where I see a fire crackling on the hearth, they see beach umbrellas and blankets.

When I head outdoors with a snow shovel, they gaze longingly at their golf clubs.

Last fall I decided to forego a gym membership in favor of continuing my fair-weather walking program. I bought a good waterproof jacket to wear in the rain, and I lined up sweaters, jackets, hats and mittens in case of snow. I reminded myself that when I was a kid, I was a die-hard skier. Nothing kept me away from the slopes--not drifting snow, not pelting sleet, not sub-zero temperatures.

So, this year I resolved to make this a walking winter. That was before I learned that it would be a mild one. That it would hold unanticipated delight and wonder. Deep contemplation. Pure joy.

Day after day I ventured out under a glacial blue sky.

The air was as still as if Mother Nature were holding her breath. Silence was interrupted only by the episodic barking of a dog in the distance, or a plane rumbling overhead. Never mind the fact that the Earth was spinning on its axis at a speed of over 1,000 mph and hurtling around the sun at a speed of over 18 miles per second.

The air was still. The universe silent. The woods peaceful.

Now that the snow has melted, the temperatures have come up, and the birds are back, other delights await.

The near presence of the deer.

Birdsong. And before long, the fragrance of lilacs and honeysuckle...

...all of which is fine except that I still love the winter woods.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

hope springs eternal

We're enjoying a couple of days of sunshine and unseasonable warmth here in the Northeast...enough to fool Mother Nature into thinking that spring has arrived. All sorts of feathered and furry friends have been out and around this week. The bluebirds are back. A flock of wild turkeys wandered into the yard this morning. The deer have ventured out into the meadow. And today, I spotted a school of minnows darting this way and that in one of the nearby creeks. This, too:


The weather has some women thinking about giving the house a good cleaning. But I don't like to clean, so I was thinking a new spring wardrobe would be nice...even though I know that spring is still a couple of weeks away. 

This is just a little teaser. It won't last. It lifts your spirits and and gives you hope...but you know from experience that the weather will turn cold and wet again before the real thing arrives.

As a writer you may have experienced the same kind of thing. Let's say you've been working long and hard on a story, a poem, or a novel. You begin to think the drudgery will never end, that success will never be yours.

Then the day arrives when your critique group raves about pages you share with them. Or, your short story is accepted for publication. Or, the agent you queried requests your full manuscript.

Suddenly, there's hope! Reason for optimism! You're energized, ready to take on the next project. It feels like the first day of spring after a long, cold winter of revisions and rejections.

...until you face the blank page again and the clouds roll back in.

I fully expect the weather to change again, soon. I'm certain the temperatures will fall and cold rain will sweep in. Perhaps even snow. It will follow us back inside where the hard work of writing and fear of rejection will have us wishing for spring again.