July 14, 2020 § 6 Comments
Let’s talk about description. Readers need to know what places and settings look like, but if an author goes on too long describing them down to the smallest nail head in the wall, our attention tends to wander, because we care about people, not things—and we like conflict between people most of all.
The biggest problem with description is we usually get too much, too soon. This is true for all exposition (yes, description is expository, since it’s “intended to explain or describe”). In Chapter One, you’d be just fine describing people and places that are going to pertain to Chapter Two or Three. What you don’t need to describe at length are places and people we won’t encounter again in the book; you also needn’t go into detail about a place we don’t visit again until much later. If your grandfather only appears in Chapter One, then some very simple description is fine for him. He’s tall and thin with a wispy gray beard, perhaps, and that is enough. A workplace might be described simply as “a field of uniform white cubicles” if we are not setting a major scene there.
You probably already know to pick specific details rather than generalities. For example, we often label places “run-down,” but what does that mean visually? What is the clue that—in looking at a house or a gas station—would lead you to call it run-down? Pick that specific thing and show us, instead of using the same tired description. When you go back to that location, show us another dirty, worn image: the screen door hanging from one rusty hinge, the peeling, weathered porch-boards, and the bare, weedy lawn to help us to construct a mental image of the place.
And don’t describe your main character from head to toe in the early pages in that adjective-loaded bad-romance-novel way (“her auburn hair tumbled down over the neckline of her green silk shantung sheath, revealing her creamy ivory décolletage”). Instead show a characteristic—a way of dressing, walking, or talking that reveals something key. After all, we do this every day. We see a person ahead of us on the sidewalk, and start assembling pieces of their look, actions, and behavior that let us know whether they’re going to ask for money, pitch us a religion, say hi, or just ignore us. If they act too eager to connect with us, we may take out our phone or refuse to look them in the eye.
When I did the content edit on the manuscript of Fourteen: A Daughter’s Memoir of Adventure, Sailing, and Survival (She Writes Press, Oct 2015) by Leslie Johansen Nack, Chapter One began with her family living on a rundown ranch when Leslie was much younger than the title age. There was great writing there—a lot of good description of the setting of the property and of Leslie and her sisters and her parents. The writing was excellent, but it threw off the structure by focusing on the family’s early life, which is not what the book is about.
I encouraged her to begin much later—in 1973, when she was a preteen—moving quickly to some of the early, troubled sailing scenes with her family on the sailboat they eventually take to the South Seas. The opening pages would then show how her father bonded with her over sailing on day one (his unhealthy attention to his daughter, which eventually drove a wedge between him and her mother, is hinted at) and also let the reader know what sort of book it is (see subtitle). I assured her that she could show some of the early scenes in “flashbacks” later on.
Fourteen includes a dysfunctional, abusive family dynamic that was established early in her life, but the book needed to begin with a truer sense of what the majority of the story entailed: sailing and her strained relationship with her father. Showing the whole family interacting on the boat let the author describe them in visual, active ways that revealed their characters, not just their characteristics. For example, the first sailing scene shows the mom and sister getting seasick and Leslie feeling fine, which results in her father’s approval of her, specifically.
Leslie jumped right back in and went to work on the opening chapters and some other trouble spots—for example, we decided that the book should end when the voyage ended. (The effort she went through in cutting those early chapters and restructuring the manuscript was worth it: Fourteen is the recipient of 5 independent book awards, and the book gets 4.5 stars with 700 ratings on Goodreads.)
We have all heard we must “kill our darlings,” but with description and exposition, it’s hard for authors to know which ones to kill and which to simply move later or sprinkle throughout the book. The best advice I can give is to consider your genre, and refer to the book’s one-paragraph pitch or “log line” and see if every chapter—especially the early ones—support or advance your story line.
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, specializing in memoir and nonfiction adventure travel. She has worked on books including The Dining Car by Eric Peterson, Wheels Up: a Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival by Jeanine Kitchel, and Soil-Man by Oz Monroe. Find out more about “Jenny Redbug” and her work at jennyredbug.com.
July 8, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Lisa Levy
For the past 20 years or so I was a critic—a critic with some ambition, but no desire to reveal myself separately from my thoughts. I started reviewing books as a sideline when I was in an English PhD program and then I discovered I liked my side gig better than my main one. I got more actual readers, as opposed to what I would have publishing academic papers, where nine of your friends-rivals who are also studying Gertrude Stein would read your essay (or pretend to have read it). Plus, I had an abiding interest in criticism, and as I studied the canonical writers most of them had a bent for criticism too: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot. When I was a critic I was incorporeal, a creature concerned only with judging a book (it was usually a book, sometimes two, or sometimes music or a TV show) as objectively as possible. I was an aspiring 21st century secular version of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, an image I studied in grad school which has haunted me ever since: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
So—God thing aside—I reveled in being a critic, in judgment, in writing as if my thoughts were incontrovertible truths. I let some of myself slip in, like my favorite critics did—Susan Sontag, Geoff Dyer, Wayne Koestenbaum—but I guarded the part of myself that could be hurt not if someone did not like my writing but if someone disliked my writing so much that they disliked me. I’ve never asked other writers if they also suffer from this slippage between writer and work, if they feel rejected when their work is ignored or badmouthed, if they can’t help but want to know the writers they admire and to demean the ones they dislike, whether for personal or professional reasons. I was expert at the latter. I kept a list of writers in my head who had gotten assignments I coveted, or who had written something I liked so much I immediately detested the brain that birthed it. The stakes are so low in writing, the plumb assignments so rare, that to indulge in this kind of behavior is pure petulance—but a writer’s ego is a fragile thing.
My struggle with low with self-esteem curtailed my professional ambitions. I didn’t try to submit my work to the best places, and I didn’t really think about why. My insecurity was so ingrained I wondered if I’d ever make it to the next level, the one where the glossy magazines come to you, the one where editors took you to lunch and asked you if you had any ideas, or they emailed urgently to secure you to review the book everyone was buzzing about. Your piece would be on the cover of the magazine, of course, your name in twenty-four-point font.
Now I hope you are not expecting some magical advice about how to escape the most common writer’s traps: low self-esteem, impostor syndrome, extreme bitterness, and death by comparison. The way I did it was simple: I wrote more, and I wrote differently. I burst out of my critical mode, silenced the voices that told me I was too ambitious, too pretentious, and not worthy of critiquing writing because mine was subpar.
For me, the way out of the critical conundrum was to do what comes naturally: to think more about myself, and how I could be more of a presence in my writing. In transforming into the transparent eyeball my graduate school training had stolen the I from me. Seizing the first-person enabled me to make assertions not just as the voice of a publication, or of some free-floating critical entity, I gained confidence. At first I used my new voice sparingly, but as I did it more I started to listen and I liked how it sounded. I started writing personal essays, leaving other writers out of my pieces, and they turned out okay, and then better than okay. I published them, and people responded.
Don’t misunderstand me: I didn’t suddenly land a bushel of personal essay assignments just because I published a few, one of which got a fairly large audience because it was about my migraines and sick people love to read about their own illness. Yet publishing a few was exactly what I needed to feel legitimate, like I didn’t have to lean on the ideas and the voices of other writers. I had learned to redirect my critical voice so it wasn’t dismembering a book—or me—but something in the world I needed to break down, turn over, and discuss with some urgency, like my chronic migraines; my sad and comic dating history; or my love affair with vintage dresses. I worried I would come off as shallow, or pathetic, or deluded. But I didn’t. I wrote personal essays with charisma, with a bit of arrogance, with humor among moments of despair.
In short, I wrote like a human being, like someone who doubts and who believes, who loves and hates, who marches headfirst into the future and who quivers at the idea of the unknown. I wrote like a person terrified of change and eager for experience. I wasn’t just a critic anymore. I was a person, and I wrote like one.
Lisa Levy has been a freelance writer and editor for almost 20 years, focusing on essays, criticism, feminism, and self-fashioning. She has written for many publications, including The New Republic, the LARB, the Believer, the Millions, the Rumpus, TLS, Boulevard, Hazlitt, and Lit Hub, where she is a contributing editor. She is also a contributing editor and columnist at Crime Reads and is working toward a nonfiction MFA at Goucher College. A longtime New Yorker now based in Toronto, she has work forthcoming in Assay, Narratively, the Missouri Review, and Guernica.
July 7, 2020 § 12 Comments
One of the most talked-about Modern Love columns is 2009’s “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” Laura Munson’s husband says he doesn’t love her anymore. She says she doesn’t buy it, and spends the summer making a happy life for her kids, her husband welcome to join in if he feels like it. Around Thanksgiving, they repair their marriage.
That’s the end of the story.
The essay went viral. Munson wrote a bestselling memoir. The marriage ended anyway. That’s the end of another story, one she’s told in essays and articles.
Mid-divorce, in a bid to save her beloved Montana farm, Munson conceived of hosting Haven writing retreats. She loves the life she has; she’s just published a novel, Willa’s Grove.
Sometimes what makes a happy ending is waiting another year to see what happens next. Or stopping five pages sooner. Memoirists get to choose. We’re obligated to the truth, as fairly as we can tell it, but we don’t have to tell the whole truth.
Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memorists are stuck with what actually happened. But like a novel, a memoir must also engage readers in our problem, give them hope that we will survive and fear that we may not, and finish with power and emotional resonance. While many memoirs don’t have happy endings per se, we can still show ourselves making a choice or taking an action that will lead to a positive outcome, and a little of the hopeful aftermath. We can leave readers with the message, I survived this and I wrote a whole book about it—isn’t that amazing?
If you’re having trouble finishing your memoir, you may not have picked the right place to end…or you may not have lived the end of the story yet.
Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing before writing, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down the truth, checking facts, realizing, that happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior.
Sometimes we can even embrace what happened. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Our past is a rich trove of information. Every terrible detail we tease out to make a novel deeper, every bad experience we use in a good essay, puts us in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m okay with how I got here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.
We get to choose that, too.
Looking for your ending?
Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past has helped you recognize and own it. Terrific! To find the end of your memoir on the page:
- Identify Protagonist-You’s starting point, and what’s wrong with her life at that time and place, or the journey she’s about to begin.
- Figure out where in your personal history you fixed that problem, changed that situation, or completed that journey. Chances are good that’s the end of the story.
- Revise your draft to reflect that dramatic arc. Now that you know the resolution, some scenes and characters will seem more important and others less so. Show the parts important to this resolution; cut down or edit out the things that don’t contribute.
Maybe you’re still living your memoir. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace that makes the past okay. Your story literally hasn’t finished.
- Flip back through your pages. Can you tell Protagonist-You, “Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better when X happens”? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and change and release yet to come. Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
- Meanwhile, take action: what would be a satisfying resolution to your journey?
Write an imaginary final chapter, as if your memoir were a novel. What happens to the protagonist? How has she grown or changed? How is her life different from where she started? Who and what are still in her life? What has been shed or repudiated or forgotten?
- List the specific steps your protagonist chose to move from problem to resolution. Check off any steps you’ve actually taken in your life. What steps remain to earn the satisfying resolution?
- Start carrying out those steps. If they seem insurmountable, enlist a trusted friend, a therapist, or even a writing coach to help you choose the change in your life that will conclude your memoir.
Yes, this is a lot like therapy.
But how much better do you want your life to be? How much do you want to finish your book? What would end your story well?
You really do get to choose.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Today on Instagram, she writes about why writing is like circus…and when you’re “good enough.” Click through to read!
June 29, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Josh Sippie
You’d be surprised what people say. I know I was. When I took my first memoir class at Gotham Writers Workshop, the third week of class was designated to dialogue and the homework assignment was to go eavesdrop on a conversation and transcribe it to share in class the following week.
I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical. What could people actually say? But I did my due diligence, headed to Union Square, sat on a bench and stared blankly at my book, focusing my ears like antennas to pick up a conversation that I could then write into a page of dialogue for class.
There, I heard two women talking about how they were sick of pho because it was too widespread. They liked the Vietnamese soup back when it was unique and hard to find.
It may seem pointless. Who cares about the popularity of pho (other than these two women)? But it’s not about the subject matter. It’s the passion, the context, the subtext, the dialects, the manner in in which they speak. The woman who I heard the most from was incredibly impassioned about pho and being a frontierswoman of the great pho wilderness, while the other woman mostly just nodded consent and agreed with her. Though even without looking, I could tell that she probably enjoyed pho just as much as she used to.
Hence, subtext. On the surface, it’s just two women agreeing that pho has become too popular and thus the taste suffers. But when you actually break down the dialogue, it looked like this (what these women actually said, by the way):
“Can you believe that there are four pho places in Union Square now? I don’t even want to go anymore because everyone goes now. Y’know what I mean?”
“I mean, it’s ridiculous. I remember when you actually had to look for pho.”
So yes, these two women are agreeing about the prevalence of pho. But is the other woman really agreeing, or just actively listening? And what does she think about pho? Is she annoyed with her friend? Because it seems so. Maybe there’s something elsewhere. Does she suspect her friend of doing something unsavory? Are they up for the same promotion at work?
When you read dialogue, if it’s written in such a way to reflect how human beings actually talk, you don’t have to overstate. You don’t have to tell your reader how to read it. They’ll hear it.
Using context and the actual conversation, the reader knows what that “Sure” means. And maybe it also cues up how you might have done things differently. Would you have gone along with the conversation, or would you have taken a different approach? By letting your dialogue outside of its comfort zone, you are opening it up to improvement. The kind of improvement you don’t often get from talking to your television screen or cat. It’s actually a hard thing to listen to yourself talk in a natural, human voice. That’s what other people are for.
Dialogue is at its peak when it is truly human, but you’re not going to get it human through guesswork and writing it according to the Chicago Manual of Style. People don’t pattern their everyday speech based on a manual, they pattern it based on emotion and impulse. If you want your narrative nonfiction to reflect the humanity of the situation, then there better be some actually humanity in it.
Hearing how actual people talk will let your mind start piecing together your own dialogue the way you have heard actual people talk. And it all starts with having open ears. So take out your headphones on the subway and just listen. Maybe you’ll hear something that triggers your imagination, or reminds you of a conversation you had. It doesn’t have to be about pho either (thankfully).
Remember, there is nothing that you overhear someone saying that can then become “unrealistic” dialogue, or an unrealistic way to speak. It’s as real as it gets. And while it’s unlikely that you can just pluck a conversation from your walk to the grocery store and plop it in your essay, actual human voices will be floating through your head, not just words on a page. You’ll hear the inflection of voices, the subtext obtained through simple, curt responses, accents, dialects, made-up words, made-up words said in funny dialects. Every day is an opportunity to improve your dialogue writing if you just put yourself in a position to actively listen.
And what better way to try to cure writer’s block then by sitting yourself in the middle of someone else’s story and hearing the way they tell it? The world is full of voices; you just have to be willing to listen to them.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Writer Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.
June 25, 2020 § 11 Comments
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore will be offering a one-hour webinar next week, titled The Power of Story: Finding the River of Meaning in Your Memoir or Essay, as part of Creative Nonfiction‘s virtual education program.
The online webinar will examine the craft elements that can transform a memoir or essay from a mere collection of scenes or observations into something powerful, and how writers can create a dynamic, compelling whole greater than the sum of its many parts. The goal, as Langston Hughes writes, is to tell a story that is “older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”
- FIND the power of story and discover how locating your “Invisible Magnetic River” will insure that readers stay engaged and curious from beginning to end.
- LEARN how story can help to solve many of the frustrations and obstacles that can interfere with both writing and revision.
- DISTINGUISH between a chain of events and a compelling story that contains a dynamic emotional flow.
- UNDERSTAND that the surest way to make your book or essay one that readers want to read–and, in that way, one that editors want to publish–is to tell a damn good story.
Writers at any level, at the beginning of a project or in the revision process, are welcome.
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
2 pm – 3:15 pm EDT
Advance registration required. REGISTER HERE.
About the instructor: Dinty W. Moore is author of the memoir Between Panic & Desire and the writing guides The Story Cure and Crafting the Personal Essay, among many other books. He has published essays and stories in the Georgia Review, Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. He is founding editor of Brevity, the journal of flash nonfiction, and teaches master classes and workshops across the United States as well as in Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, and Mexico.
June 16, 2020 § 28 Comments
I needed to write about the crazy year I had. Should I keep working on it?
Sometimes I’m a last resort:
I’ve queried 100 agents and nobody wants my book. Should I just self-publish?
The answer is always another question:
What does your book do for the reader?
Memoir already lacks suspense. We lose the novelist’s standby of “will this character make it?” We know you survived—you wrote a book about it. Most of us are not such brilliant writers that our shining prose fascinates regardless of the subject. Most of us are working hard to raise our storytelling skills to the level of the story’s own power, because raw trauma is not enough.
But there’s a shortcut.
Write a book that does something for the reader.
Write the book that beautifully expresses the pain of your addiction, or the trauma of your childhood, or the desperation of your divorce, but revise it to directly help the reader. Beyond “my story is universal.” Beyond “people need to know this situation exists.”
Yes, one of the gifts of memoir is showing readers “you’re not the only one who felt like this.” But unless we are writing National Book Award-level prose, our personal pain is not enough, no matter how honestly we express it. When a promising manuscript veers from story into eulogy, I sometimes howl internally:
…nobody cares about your kid!
…nobody cares about your pet!
…nobody cares about your dead relative!
Readers are sympathetic, but sympathy for a stranger’s problems doesn’t last 285 pages. Transforming your painful (or joyful!) experience into a book that sells means tying your problem directly to the reader’s own experience, using your writing skill and personal credentials. This does not mean writing self-help, but showing specific, actionable steps the reader might be inspired to take.
What does “do something for the reader” look like in practice?
- Medical memoir: My dad died and it was horrifying and Mom was no help at all and here’s how I navigated a medical system designed to rip us off, and what I learned about myself and about Medicare. Also, I’m hilarious.
The reader gets: OMG my parent had funny death stuff too and I felt so bad laughing but it’s OK to laugh, and wow, I don’t have to pay that bill!
- Death of a child memoir: My kid died and it was horrifying and here’s how I lived in a fantasy world where drug abuse didn’t look like my kid, and what I learned. Also, I’m a brilliant writer.
I’m not the only one who missed the signs and I don’t have to feel dumb and guilty because I see why she did too, and wow! That paragraph puts my grief into words!
- Death of a pet memoir: My dog died and it was sad and here’s what I learned about alternative pet medicine, when to stop medical intervention, and how I knew it was time to let her go. Also, I’m a veterinarian with stories about how others knew when to treat their pet or let them go.
I’m not a terrible pet owner for not buying another kidney for Princess, and wow! Now I have specific ways to process my grief without hearing “it’s only a dog”!
- Family memoir: My grandchild is precocious and I taught myself how to talk about climate change and human destructiveness without crushing a child’s spirit. Also, I’m an educator and will fill you with hope.
I don’t have to be a scientist to have an age-appropriate conversation with my six-year-old about human extinction, and wow! I’m a little more hopeful myself!
Take a look at your own manuscript:
- Is the first chapter backstory and exposition because “No one will understand my family if I don’t tell our history”? We are not as unique as we think. That’s why memoir is “universal.” Cut those pages. Get the reader hooked emotionally. Identify your problem that might also be their problem. Fill in backstory later as needed.
- Got more than two pages in a row about how great someone was, or what living with them was like? A eulogy is not a story. Cut to the best paragraph or the most significant gesture. Show them through actions. Put their greatness in context with your problem. My husband was so thoughtful, when I was widowed I didn’t know how to pay the electric bill and here’s how I navigated that. Or, My dog was so amazing I had to learn how to grieve an animal when she died and here’s what I did.
- Is how you tell your story inspiring, hopeful, or educational? Not textbook or self-help, but can readers productively channel your experience to walk away as better people?
H is for Hawk* teaches readers about falconry and processing grief through new experience. Wild inspires taking a physical journey to purge our past. How to Be Black examines American racism through a personal lens, and the lessons are truly absorbed through comedy.
Pour out your love and tragedy and joy in words. Maybe you’ll have a 285-page eulogy. Maybe it’ll be the first draft of a book you sell. For readers, honoring your dead is not enough. Not your dead mom, your dead kid or your dead dog. Write to honor your love and your kin. Revise to do something for the reader.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Instagram for writing advice, travel adventures, and workshop and retreat announcements.
*Just FYI, H is for Hawk is on sale right now (4.99 Kindle) if you’ve been meaning to read it, and How to Be Black is free right now with Kindle Unlimited.
June 12, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Sorcha Trant
I had misgivings about the concept at first. To me, it seemed a kind of scavenging, a form of literary eavesdropping in which I was embedding myself like an email-worm into the intimate correspondence between another writer and the blank page. But as soon as I began, I realised that Martin Dyar was teaching me to write in the same way that Sr. Kathleen had taught me to knit.
Sr. Kathleen plucked a ball of yarn from the new, cushion-padded bag my mother had bought me and bridged about an inch of the pink wool to her wooden needle before looping it around in a slip-knot. After several more minutes of bridging and looping, Sr. Kathleen had aligned a series of twenty of the same knots in a neat row. I gripped my grey-plastic needle like a pencil in my right hand as she took it in hers and guided it through the first slip-knot with the rhyme: In the bunny-hole. Stretch. Round the bunny-tree. Catch. Through the bunny hole – and off goes she. I repeated the pattern, reciting the rhyme until all of the knots had been transferred from Sr. Kathleen’s needle to mine.
Martin was doing the same thing when he instructed us to emulate Ted Hughes’ “The Thought-Fox.” First, he pointed out the narrative spine he had bridged and looped to his own stylus while studying the poem. He then set us burrowing through the bunny-holes within each vertebra: the sense of immediacy of the present tense; the attesting to a perceptual power with ‘I imagine’; the use of colons to give pace and rhythm; the short, succinct nouns that made an extraordinary experience ordinary. Several rounds of draft-emulations later, I had absorbed Hughes’ technique into my fingers just as I had done at seven years old with Sr. Kathleen.
I have been emulating since Jack-and-Jill-went-up-the-hill. It is not an invasion of other writers’ work but rather a thread-exchange from their hands to mine, a nod to the wisdom and craft of those who have gone before and the thirst to stake a claim over it.
After weeks with Sr. Kathleen, I knew her bunny-rhyme by heart and, getting a particular thrill out of the clinking sound the needles made when transferring a knot from one to the other, I made my own contribution to the poem: In the bunny-hole. Stretch. Round the bunny-tree. Catch. Through the bunny-hole. CLICK, and off goes she.
And just like that, the page is printed. The scarf is knitted.
Sorcha Trant completed an MA in Creative Writing in the University of Limerick in 2019. She operates under many guises. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, you may meet her as a dentist, a harpist or a writer.
June 3, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Michael Lewis
There is a fine line between just enough and too much information. The trouble begins with the simple urge to over-explain—just a few details here, one metaphor too many there. This slippery slope ends when the reader discovers you are not giving them credit to figure things out on their own. Once the bond of trust between you and your reader starts to decay, it’s all over. Your story loses its wheels and ends up abandoned on the side of the road.
E. L. Doctorow famously wrote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The analogy is meant to inspire the writer who may not know exactly where their story is headed. I think it also serves nicely as a reminder of just how much to share with the reader.
Let’s stay with the road analogy.
The reader assumes the road of our story will traverse some flat land, mountains and valleys, and hopefully encounter some hidden turns or dead ends along the way. There will be intersections in the narrative and the reader will need enough information to guess whether to turn right, left, or keep going straight. Sometimes either direction will get the reader to the same point, though one route might take less time, the other perhaps more scenic. These are our artistic choices to make and, done properly, will nudge different readers in different directions. Some will keep right on going and not even consider turning. All of these options are viable as long as everyone ends up at Point B. This is one of the joys of writing—to hint at what lies ahead so the reader has something to which they may look forward. Provide the essential information but parcel it out. Think of it as shrewd generosity.
Let your readers make connections on their own and try not to beat them over the head with your cleverness. Be subtle. Even if your writing is delicate, delicacy is not always subtlety. Don’t advertise your prowess. In a novel, advertisements of this sort take up precious space that could otherwise be used for something interesting or useful. In Travels With Charlie: In Search of America, Steinbeck quips about the phenomenon of billboards and highways, writing, “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” Learn to couch your cleverness. Let the reader’s light bulb go on a sentence or two after you give them the hint. If they miss the turn they can always circle back.
Another way to think about it.
Imagine the reader is in the car with you. Or better yet, give them their own car. Do that in the first chapter. Give them the keys, fill it up with gas, and make that contract with them that will become their road map. It has sketchy details at first, but the further they travel the more information they will mentally input onto their map. They may or may not know they are driving to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They only know they are heading north and west to begin with. This is enough to get them started. Maybe give them an idea how long the trip might be so they can begin to plan. Who is riding with them? Always good to know.
A paragraph is its own concise set of directions with opportunities to engage the reader on every page—the sentence, tighter yet. It is easy to get so caught up in the way a sentence or paragraph sounds, how they make us feel, i.e., style, tone, that we completely forget to give the reader space to interpret. Remember, our readers have brought things with them on this trip—a cooler full of ideas, preconceptions, comparisons, reasoning skills, bias, not to mention their needs and desires as a reader, their demands. And sometimes they want to reach into that cooler and be surprised. Trust your reader and be good to them. This is probably not their first time behind the wheel and they have taken road trips before.
One hazard to look out for is repetition. It makes the reader want to nod off and who knows where they will end up. Look over your paragraphs and sentences. Are there phrases that can be cut? Beginning writers will frequently describe something a couple different ways, often within the same sentence, simply because they like the way it sounds. I have certainly been guilty of this. The reader doesn’t need both. Choose one, then write the other one down in your notebook in a section called Analogies, or Nice Phrases, or whatever. That’s where it belongs. You can even group them by subject or character. Be creative…and organized. You can use it down the road with no strings attached.
Rules of the road.
Travel light. If you’re not sure you need it, you probably don’t.
Trust your instincts.
Act on your instincts!
Don’t get sidetracked by all the pretty little things.
Pay attention. Always.
Don’t leave your reader stranded for long. They will find another ride and hang with you if you are lucky, but they may just as easily turn around and go home. You have invited them on this journey and are asking them, in Doctorow’s words, to make the whole trip with you. So pay attention and for the most part, keep the car on the road.
Happy writing and don’t forget to turn your lights on.
Michael Lewis daydreams and writes from his home in Indiana where he finds inspiration walking the open fields and low hills of the Wabash River Valley. He is currently at work on his first novel.
May 25, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Josh Sippie
It’s hard to argue that the whole “you only get one chance to make a first impression” logic doesn’t also apply to writing. The first line of a narrative is the first foray into the voice of the author, the creativeness, the style, the everything. If that isn’t on par with what you, the reader, are looking for, then what’s leading you to believe that the rest of the narrative will change? For that matter, why should you give it the chance to change when there are so many other options out there to consume?
So what makes an interesting first line? Let’s take a look.
Take, for instance, the first line of The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls.
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.”
Simple, but enticing, no? There is no throat clearing, no preamble, no walk-up, nothing hokey about it. The story begins in the very first sentence. If you plant their feet in the story in the first line then the only reason they will leave before the next sentence is if they just don’t like your voice, your style, your story. And you know what they say—don’t write for everyone. Because you’ll never please them all.
Give your reader the story immediately. If that means starting in the middle of action, like watching your mom root through a dumpster, great. Start there. The story is already in motion and the reader is now part of it. They’re asking themselves all kinds of questions: What was Jeanette doing that evening? Why was her mother in the dumpster? What was she looking for?
Or, if you don’t want to start in the middle of the action, try introducing conflict. Take Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find for example.
“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”
Why not? What grandmother? Why doesn’t she have a name?
Or try intrigue, like in I’m The One Who Got Away by Andrea Jarrell.
“Susannah was murdered just before Christmas but I didn’t find out until after New Year’s.”
Who is Susannah? How was she murdered? Why didn’t Andrea know?
What do all of these beginnings have in common? The reader is asking questions. If they are asking questions after the first line, they will be curious enough to try the second. If you force them to ask questions—good questions, mind you—they will seek out the answers.
That’s not the only method, though it’s a great place to start. You might also try poking their emotions. You only have one sentence, so don’t try to drop the weight of the world on their shoulders all in one fell swoop, but giving them a prod to make them smile or worry or feel empathy towards the protagonist is another way to ensure that the first line does its job.
One of the best examples comes from Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind Of Girl.
“When I was nine, I wrote a vow of celibacy on a piece of paper and ate it.”
Are you smiling? Because I am, and this isn’t the first time I’ve read that line. If you can get a genuine smile from the reader with one line, they are going to trust you for more smiles in the lines and pages to come.
Maybe you’re not writing a smiley piece, though. Cory Taylor wasn’t in his Memoir (and the title should give the tone away) Dying: A Memoir. But his first line does the trick:
“About two years ago I bought a euthanasia drug online from China.”
Worried yet? (It also makes them ask questions, but we’re past that part.)
Both Dunham and Taylor accomplished the same thing in their first line with very different tactics. They poke the reader’s emotions. And since both stories are marketed to the right audience, that effective poke is what made their entire story so effective.
The tried and true method, no matter the approach, is to think like the reader. When you go to read an essay, or pick up a memoir, or a poem, or an article—what do you look for? You look for intrigue, emotion, adventure. You want to ask questions and have them answered. You want your emotions to be poked and prodded and taken for a ride.
Do the same for your readers. Get them to ask questions that they then seek the answer to, or get them to feel something that they want more of—that’s how to ensure they get to sentence No. 2.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Writer Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.
May 7, 2020 § 2 Comments
In her craft essay, Jody Keisner illustrates how she applies the notion of “show, don’t tell” along with William Carlos Williams’s phrase, “No ideas but in things.” She provides remarkable examples of how writers use objects—a flower, a button, a ladle, and more—to conjure symbolism and abstract ideas in their essays:
The small happenings explored in [River Teeth magazine’s] Beautiful Things are often mundane and deceivingly simple, yet they become exceptional through the writer placing a unique focal point on an object or a thing—a relief for writers who worry that their lives are too ordinary to write about.
I eventually learned how to apply “show, don’t tell” purposefully to my essays. Both this maxim and “no ideas but in things” remind writers to meet readers halfway when illustrating our intended meaning, but not all the way, encouraging engagement with our prose. And so “no ideas but in (beautiful) things” is one method of many that we might use to effectively reveal truths about our own ordinary and beautiful lives.
Read the rest of Jody Keisner’s captivating craft essay in Brevity’s May 2020 issue.