Fiction Writing, write to heal, survivor
I know this is sacrilege, to speak against To Kill a Mockingbird, but speak I must; First, like everyone else of my generation I loved the movie, liked the book and the story lives on in my childhood DNA. However, now in the 21st century it should not be overlooked that To Kill a Mockingbird was written by the alabaster-skinned, Harper Lee, a privileged daughter of the Old South.
When I ask writers what their favorite books are, many raise their hands and say, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, to which everyone in the room nods as if to say Amen, can I get a witness! Oops! That’s my Baptist upbringing oozing out… Anyway, then I ask, “When did you last read it?” Inevitably the answer is, “In grade school.” So (I ask) “How NOW is that one of your favorite books when you read it 5 decades ago?”
When I go further into discussion of the book, the story, even the mistakes and typos, everything (except Lee’s style, which is beautiful) they can’t seem to recall much beyond the moral lesson—that take away that caused a generation to take a passive pause—And then they recall Atticus, Boo and Scout, because they are part of our mythos now.
Anyway, you gotta wonder; is loving TKM considered as American as apple pie and ‘can I get a witness’???? Is having issues with it as sacrilege as burning the red, white and blue?
Toni Morrison once dismissed the novel as a “white savior story”, except that Atticus failed to save Tom Robinson. I agree.
To me as a writer, and now as an adult reader, the devastating flaw in Lee’s creation of Atticus is his passiveness and acceptance of rampant, murderous racism as the status quo. As the designer of his character (the author) rather than having him assigned by the court to defend Tom Robinson, I would have had him insist on serving as the innocent man’s lawyer—not because it’s his occupation but because it’s his duty. This assertion would have energized him and the story. He tells Scout, “Every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess.” Could he be more passive and unaffected? Could his moral compass be more limp-noodled? Tom Robinson’s damnation by the jury should have ripped the very fabric of Atticus Finch to shreds. But it didn’t because at his core, he too, was a racist, he expected it all along and just went through the motions, with a ‘that’s just the way things are’ attitude. And it’s that attitude that brings us back to the inescapable white woman sensibilities of the author.
Oh sure, Atticus was passively valiant when he stood on the steps of the jail blocking the rope totting white mob from reaching Tom Robinson—but that kind of bravery lacked fortitude and conviction, he was just doing his job, an empty gesture.
However, I think the typical American who revers that book would rather not consider the apathy, laziness, and lack of moral conviction of Atticus Finch. Rather, they indulge in the cute voice of a little girl named Scout who spoon-feeds her girlish moral observations in a way that is not too uncomfortable to digest.
TKM doesn’t ask us to challenge our scruples (like Huck Finn did) no, it allows us to just sit back and be charmed by that little girl, so satisfied by the decency of her father.
Loving and extolling Mockingbird eases our self-blame, and in doing so, absolves us of accountability. It feels good, it feels right, to cherish this novel—AMEN! It feels like it’s what we’re supposed to do. It seduces by attaching itself to our nostalgia and then by satiating our flaccid conscience like the junk food on which we mindlessly indulge. Yep, as long as there are Atticus Finches in the world, someone will step up and take charge, and you yourself can remain in your reclining chair, popcorn in hand watching movies that make you feel like you’ve agreed with the moral thing to do instead of getting up and doing it. We Americans prefer our morality boiled down into easy bite size titbits, and so the lax-a-daisy one-liner-ethics of Mockingbird were and remain appetizing for millions.
Aside from TKM’s Black/African-American stereotypes, of which I am not qualified (as a white woman) to discuss with the fervor they deserve, there are other toxic messages. As writers, we have the potential to send messages, intentional or not, good and bad, via our stories, that are more far-reaching than we imagine.
For example, Imagine that you are an African-American seventh-grade boy in Mississippi today, and are asked to read TKM. Then imagine that it reinforces your haunting suspicion that you are treated differently because of the color of your skin, and that you’ll never get a fair trial if you are suspected of something, like Tom Robinson.
Or, you’re an underprivileged, white seventh-grade girl in Anywhere USA today, asked to read TKM. Then, sadly, you are raped, but after reading that book and digesting other social observations, you stay quiet, believing that people don’t believe girls who say they’ve been raped, like the book says, everyone should have doubted Mayella Ewell.
I could go on and on about how toxic the messages of TKM are, or the changes that have not occurred these 50 some years later, but don’t worry, I won’t. What I will say is that if you are a writer, then please create all your characters (primary and supporting) with more verve and vigor than the limp noodled morally ambiguous Atticus Finch.
In addition, when you’re in a writing group or class and you’re asked, “What are your favorite books” at least have read said books in the last decade. When a writing instructor asks you that question, she/he is asking you what/who influences your writing and the stories you tell. They are also asking you why those influences have stayed with you, what’s evocative about them, why do they matter??? So, when people tell me TKM is their favorite book I invite them to re-read it now and then let’s talk. So far, no takers.
Climbing down off my soapbox now. Scattered Rant is over.
“The wonderful thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting.
The terrifying thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting.” J.K. Rowling
I just returned from a whirlwind trip through Scotland. Our last stay was the Balmoral Hotel, one of Edinburgh’s most luxurious hotels, where J.K. Rowling finished her final book in the Harry Potter series. Devoted, and wealthy fans pay almost £1,000 a night to stay in the room, which contains the marble bust she signed after completing her last HP book.
All the doors on the 5th floor were white, except one. My room was 5 doors down from the now famous ‘purple door’ that is room 552, and has the famous ‘J.K. Rowling Suite’ brass plaque, and where just behind that enchanted door, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was completed.
One night, while heading downstairs to meet my brother for dinner I heard a group of people chuckling, shivering, and twittering while taking pictures. Though they were all in their 40s, they stood, posed, and giggled as if 12-years old on the precipice of the purple door with the JK Rowling brass plaque. I offered to take a group shot. They posed like they were excited teens on graduation day. Then, over the next few days I noticed groups getting off the elevator in search of the famous door. “Our tour guide told us where to go.” One man said. I pointed the way. He was kind enough to take this kid’s picture by the purple door. 🙂
Great, I thought, strangers are coming in to take pictures, and I’m just a couple doors down. That didn’t make me feel terrible safe, until I realized all these touristy HP fans were reduced to giggling children in the presence of that door. I smiled every time I saw a group of them exit the elevator, fresh out of the rain, down coats zipped, but cameras ready. What a gift JK Rowling’s novels have given to kids of all ages.
National Novel writing month (NANOWRIMO) is next month, November. Now back in the states, I’m due to give a talk next week in preparation for that upcoming 30-day writing challenge. I’ll talk about creating the habit of writing, possibly plugging into the NANOWRIMO community and how to overcome obstacles on the path to completing their writing projects. JK ROWLING is a great, if not the golden example of a person, a writer, who can make it through anything – single motherhood, depression, financial difficulties and rejection upon rejection from the publishing world – who persevered and went on to publish one of the most popular series of all time.
We all want to write a bestseller (right?), so – being fresh off a 10-hour flight home from Scotland – it seems an opportune time to review a bit of J.K. Rowling’s quotes and sage advice to writers.
- J.K. Rowling said: “What you write becomes who you are… So make sure you love what you write!” One of the reasons the Harry Potter books are so infectious is because the reader absorbs and is transported by her sheer delight and love of the world she created – and all the characters in them. If you’re passionate about how and what you write, you’ll entice readers into your fantasy world. So write your passion. Readers will follow.
- “Be ruthless about protecting writing days. Do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”
- “You’ve got to work. It’s about structure. It’s about discipline. It’s all these deadly things that your school teacher told you you needed… You need it.”
- “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”
- “Write what you know: your own interests, feelings, beliefs, friends, family and even pets will be your raw materials when you start writing. Develop a fondness for solitude if you can, because writing is one of the loneliest professions in the world!”
- “Write something that a publisher would want to publish (it only takes one, but it might take a while to find them. If you are turned down by every single publisher in existence, you will have to consider the possibility that what you have written is not publishable). Next, you need to approach the publisher, either directly, or (which is advisable if you can manage it) by securing an agent who will act on your behalf. The best way to find agents’ and publishers’ addresses is to consult ‘The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook’, which is updated every year (Double-check that you are writing to the right person/people; don’t, for example, send science fiction to a publisher of medical textbooks). Wait. Pray. This is the way Harry Potter got published.”
- “Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there.”
- “I always advise children who ask me for tips on being a writer to read as much as they possibly can. Jane Austen gave a young friend the same advice, so I’m in good company there.”
- “Perseverance is absolutely essential, not just to produce all those words, but to survive rejection and criticism.”
- “What you write becomes who you are… So make sure you love what you write!”
- “All a writer needs is talent & ink.”
- “Failure is inevitable — make it a strength.”
- “You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is. It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with.”
- “I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself.”
- “Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.”
- From JK Rowling’s twitter; “I plan a lot. This particular novel’s plan comprises a vast, complicated, colour-coded table showing all the suspects, with blue ink for clues and red ink for red herrings.” After J.K. Rowling finished the first book in the Harry Potter series, she realised she’d given away the whole plot of the series. So she had to rewrite it, and hold back a number of integral plot points.
Planning and plotting are essential. It took five years for her to create and develop every last detail of the Harry Potter world. Every part of Rowling’s books was planned, right down to how the Wizards and Muggles interacted, what the education was like, how magic helped in life and how the wizarding world was governed. She also plotted out all the events of the seven books before she wrote the first.
- Rewriting is equally essential. She rewrote the opening chapter of her first book a total of fifteen times.
- “Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.
Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?” J.K. Rowling’s website.
- “Resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.
I often recommend a website called Writer Beware (https://accrispin.blogspot.com) to new and aspiring writers. It’s a fantastic resource for anyone who’s trying to decide what might be useful, what’s worth paying for and what should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of scams out there that didn’t exist when I started out, especially online.” J.K. Rowling’s website.
- And finally, from J.K. Rowling’s website; “Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I’ve often taken comfort from Robert Benchley’s words: ‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up, because by that time I was too famous.’”
Keep writing, aim high no matter the odds, and if you need a nudge check out the NANOWRIMO community. Cheers, Mindy
When the tick-tock of time thwacks its boney knuckles on Dorothy’s door, via a beloved, but dying pet, empty-nester syndrome, and a mother with Alzheimers who often wonders who Dorothy is, she is left to ponder that same question; who is Dorothy Rice?
Now in her sixties, Dorothy examines what came before and ponders acceptance for what’s left of her life.
During a demoralizing dinner with her fit and thin sisters whom she habitually compares herself to, a radical gauntlet is laid down;
‘I was forty-pounds overweight and not in the mood for self-reflection’….’I had no right to resent her – she eats like an anorexic bird and works out like an Olympian’… the conversation turns from working out and eating like a bird, two things Dorothy has not mastered, to hair; she may struggle with weight, but she has GREAT hair. Dorothy is grateful for the change in tête-à-tête. ‘Why is it that men become more distinguished with age, while for women, going gray isn’t a natural consequence, but rather a political statement, or an admission that they’ve given up on their appearance?’
At that dinner table where her sisters perfect the ‘art of fake eating’ and Dorothy sits hungry and eyeing the dessert case, an agreement is met; they will go gray together. In a youth obsessed world, this is radical.
Gray is the New Black is also a sister’s story. A wife’s story. A daughter’s story. A mother’s story. This is every woman’s story. I laughed, cried, related, and often cringed at the rawness of her revelations and how brave she was in her profoundly personal reveals. But mostly, I felt I wasn’t alone in my experiences, my feelings. I felt connected to my journey, not alone on the long road from girlhood to womanhood. That’s what a good memoir should do, connect us in our universal experiences.
Most women, myself included, will relate to the deeply personal exploration into sugar addiction, ups and downs of weight and the consistent fat-shaming of ourselves. Rice explores loss and shame, and the illusory expectations of a Prince Charming who shows up not in shiny armor, but threadbare and incapable of espousing the great love of myth and lore that we all grew up expecting.
This book resonated with me for many reasons. Dorothy grows to accept and truly appreciate her precious relationship with her sisters, writing, ‘The three of us will live together on a family compound, perhaps in three adjacent tiny homes…’ she writes on about what life in their sisterly dotage will be.
That is so like what my sister and I had planned.
When my sister died, with her went our ‘old age’ plan of walking on the beach – divorced and left to ourselves – wearing purple hats, bickering at one another as we did, and laughing till we peed. The loss of that old age insurance plan, that image, shook me to my core, left me seated on the edge of mortality, alone. Dorothy’s sisterly old-age-strategy resonated, and made me smile.
And now with my mom experiencing dementia, possibly Alzheimers, the stories in Dorothy’s book about her mom brought tears. Especially one scene when she’s visiting her mom in her Alzheimers home.
She rummages in her handbag and pulls out a ratty Kleenex, “One day,” Mom says, “when I have lots of money, I’m going to buy a whole pile of these little sheets of paper for blowing your nose.” She wipes her nose, refolds the soiled tissue, and stuffs it back into the stained handbag that never leaves her sight.
“I could fill your Christmas stocking with them.” I say.
“Really.” Mom says. “I had no idea you could do that.”
That sweet exchange reminds me of the hundred or so just like that, that I’ve had with my mom the last two years.
Dorothy journeys from self-loathing and self-sabotage to self-acceptance. In that self-acceptance she also recognizes that though her husband is not the Prince Charming of fable, he’s her prince, warts and all. Though she does not permanently lose the weight, she so struggles with, she does come to terms with her inner voice. That voice like a paranoid purveyor of chaos always told her to read between the lines, assume that every side-glance or whatever someone said, was a jab at her weight, or how much she was eating, or how she looked in that dress, or, or, or….always negative self-talk. She gets a peaceful handle on that toxic inner life-coach and begins to relax, accept herself, weight and all. As her hair grows in strength, length and the beautiful rich grayness of womanhood, it becomes metaphor for Dorothy.
She recognizes her own personal power is one of choice – how she chooses to perceive the world – and in that, she finds peace.
Ultimately, that’s really all the power we have isn’t it; our choice in how we see the world colors every experience. Once we get that right everything else begins to fall into place.
I HIGHLY recommend this book.
Ultimately, Gray is the New Black is a story of transformation.
Writing a Memoir? Apply the essentials of fiction-writing to bring your story to life.
If you’re writing a memoir, make sure your story takes readers on a journey they won’t forget. Remember, to your readers your memoir is just a story, and YOU are just a character. A great memoir invites a reader into its story world just like fiction does. Readers will (or not) emotionally engage with the unique quest, struggle, ups and downs, and the wonderment of it all. Don’t embellish, don’t lie or mess with the facts, just tell your story honestly and in a way that only you can. Remember, the facts in the story are as you remember them, they may not, and usually don’t, encompass the entire truth, just your truth, and that’s what you’re writing.
One way to create your unique story world perspective is to introduce captivating setting details and develop an intriguing plot for your memoir. In the details is where even the most mundane can come to life. Remember, ‘show don’t tell’ your readers the places you describe and arouse emotions within them. They need to experience your story, almost as if it was their own. Pretend you are sitting at your kitchen table and you say to your readers, let me tell you a story…
For example, I’m working on a memory of mine;
When I was seventeen, my dad took me to a dirt-floored nightclub in a barn on Division Street in Portland Oregon. It was called the ‘D Street Corral’. I remember staring at the entrance, an actual barn with barn-red doors and stacks of hay outside where people stood in line to get in. “Are we goin’ to a rodeo?” I asked. “Cause I don’t like rodeos.”
“You’ll like this one.” Dad said. He lit a filter-less Camel cigarette and we got out of the
Inside it was dark, it looked like a rodeo place with all the stuffed deer, and huge bull horns hanging over the stage.
Hundreds of people gathered at the long bar, small round tables clustered near the stage where a man, a large black man was tuning his guitar, unmindful of the congregating crowd. Dad stepped over to the busy bar and got two bottles of Coke, because they didn’t’ sell alcohol. I remember the waitress, a pretty black-haired girl no more than twenty-three or four, flirting with him. He winked and returned to where I stood. Women and girls, flirted with dad all the time. It rolled off him like water. He’d give that wink, they’d smile, and in that innocent exchange both parties got what they desired, a blameless flirtation. I knew it then, I know it now, though my green-eyed mother never understood that he didn’t invite these flirtations: he was as oblivious to them as that man on stage tuning his guitar.
I wore my jeans, strappy platform shoes, my fringy-suede vest, and a flower-power blouse like I’d seen Julie (Peggy Lipton) on Mod Squad wearing – at seventeen, she was my fashion idol. And of course, my sunglasses stayed on top my head, holding my long hair back, just like Julie’s. On Fridays, I worked for Dad at our downtown Portland shoe shop. Sometimes after work, we stopped somewhere so he could have a quiet drink, me a coke, and maybe have something to eat before going home to a bucket of Kentucky fried chicken, my rambunctious three younger brothers and my mother’s impossible to anticipate, shifting, diet-pill induced moods.
Dad went up to a table right next to the stage where two guys were seated, he leaned down and said something to them, then took out his money clip and handed them a crisp ten-dollar-bill. They stood. At first, I thought they looked angry and that maybe dad was gonna get into a fight.
But then one said, “Your daughter, well…” they looked at me and smiled, “Happy twenty-first birthday.” And they left. We sat at the table right at the edge of the stage. Those peanut shells on the floor kept getting into my cool platform shoes and cutting at my feet. It hurt. I thought, what would Julie do? Yes, I was that corny and tragically trying to be cool at seventeen. Well, Julie would act like nothing was wrong, even if her foot was bleeding. So, I kicked off my shoes and propped my feet on the chair next to me. Dad smiled, we toasted, clinking our bottles together as the lights went down. The crowd hushed, and that large man on stage stepped up to the microphone and didn’t say a word, but the next few seconds I quickly recognized the beginning guitar notes of ‘The Thrill is Gone’. I leaned across the table to my dad who was nodding his head and had a smile on his face like I’d never seen on him before. I almost didn’t’ want to intrude, but then said, “Is that…?”
“Yep.” He said, still nodding, still smiling. “BB King.”
That was the night, the place, the song and the surprising blues-loving man I was with, when I was introduced to the blues.
Later, in my twenties I returned to ‘D Street’ on many Saturday nights to hear bands like Vegas and Paul Revere and the Raiders, because no matter how ‘Julie’ cool I tried to be, my favorites songs were ‘Kicks’ and ‘Indian Reservation.’ We danced our butts off. But there was never a night there more special than the one I spent with dad, sipping a beer and listening to BB King.
TELL your readers a story, don’t leave out the details like rocks in your shoes, smells, sights, sounds and sacred memories.
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Good critique – the opinion of readers and other writers whom you trust – is vital to writers who want to improve their craft. Critique helps a writer make that piece of writing they just birthed, even better, and therefore increasing the odds of publication.
However, critiquing another writer’s work is a delicate, potentially hazardous proposition (to friendships and or family relationships) if you forget a few golden rules. I’ve seen writers receiving critique, drop into despair, eyes water, some even storm out of critique groups and never come back. That serves no one. Keep in mind that often writers tie their entire sense of self worth to their writing. A critique can seem like criticism if not handled carefully. In my beginning years critiques were hard for my thin skin to take. These days a critique is just part of the work, a necessary part, and I’m happy to edit, cut and rewrite to make my work what I want it to be. In other words, I now have thick scaly alligator skin.
Conversely, I’ve seen writers who want ONLY praise, who will not and do not read the craft books, understand the art of writing, and have no intention of doing so. To protect yourself, your time and energy keep this golden rule; DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME AND ENERGY on any writer who is not working on their writing as hard as you do, or more so.
No one learns anything if you are too kind, not brave enough, and your feedback is done hastily and is not helpful.
In critiquing, remember these golden rules;
- Critique the writing, not the writer.
- ONLY work with writers who want honest feedback that will genuinely help them improve their work.
- Take time and make an effort so you can offer a critique that is thoughtful and helpful; otherwise, just respectfully decline to do a critique for them.
- Put yourself in the critique receiver’s shoes. EMPATHY is key here.
- Always be brave enough to tell them the truth, in the kindest way possible.
- Take time to consider your feedback and how it may be received, then hopefully both parties come out unscathed, wiser and with mutual respect.
And for those receiving critique;
Not letting writing critiques wound you is easy to say. It necessitates a change of perception and a ton of practice to earn my kind of alligator skin. Constantly remember; your writing is not a reflection of your value as a human being. Keep reminding yourself that a critique is an opportunity for evolution. Keep reiterating to yourself; to become a better, stronger writer will take growing pains, as does all transformation. I remind myself of what Hemingway said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” Then I take every opportunity, including receiving critiques, to become better at my craft.
Bottom line, it’s your work, your words, your story. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.
This morning I responded to a woman who is in a writer’s group that I mentor, about establishing and then protecting her writing time. She wrote to let me know she picked up the book, The Artist Way, that I recommended. I thought I’d share my response since it’s important for us all;
One of the hardest things I had to do (some years back) was transition from being a bread-winner-single-mom career woman, into being a writer, whether paid or not – mostly not. Learning to honor my writer’s spirit was tough life work. It took me a decade of feeling guilty if I was not making money, or dealing with everyone else’s problems – always putting my writing last. Not that I still don’t have these issues, but what’s different these days is that my writing comes first. My family knows this now. Well, the family that I am close to. Many of them, like the ‘toxic playmates’ in Julia Cameron’s, The Artist Way, are no longer part of my inner circle. My inner circle shrunk at first – illuminating the shallow-thinking-feeling bankers, mortgage experts, finance guru’s and realtors that had populated my soul-sucking career world. But then, as time went on and I changed, embracing my artist self, my inner circle expanded in ways I had never imagined – artist, writers, playwrights, screenwriters, and so on. That was a vital part of honoring myself, of embracing my dreams and transitioning to the other side, to a life I had only ever fantasized about.
Establishing writing time was also a huge part of that. NOW I feel guilty if I don’t write. That’s a complete change.
Remember, as Julia Cameron wrote;
‘Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source. As we move toward our dreams, we move toward our divinity.’
I have lived (and still am living) this journey and am now closer to the other side, the side I NEVER thought I’d transition to. It’s been hard work, but SO worth the journey. I wish you confidence and a spark of divine spirit as you embark on this journey. It’s your life work now, you’ve chosen it, it has chosen you…you can’t not go down this road, because if you do, that’s the path to regret – nobody wants that.
Set a time each day, as we discussed. Stick to it, even if it’s 20 minutes. That 20 minutes is a seed that will grow. Surround yourself with people who believe in and honor your dreams. No One else is allowed in right now, not till your stronger, with feet firmly planted in making your dream come true. Then, like a good meditation session, outside noise can’t penetrate your dream world.
All my best. Mindy
A BIG THANK YOU to Lydia for reminding me how far I’ve come on this path.
Keep writing you all, even if it’s 20 minutes a day. Write on. Cheers, Mindy
Writing first pages is hard work. PERIOD.
The expectations of you as a writer are huge, and the expectations of readers is even HUGER (is that a word? Maybe not, okay…) BIG, big reader expectations start on the first page.
Anyway, it takes a lot of work to get it right. One thing to remember, amongst the gazillion other things you need to remember about first pages, is to ground your reader in some details. Which details depend on your story, theme, and your super-powers as a creative genius?
Your first page should, in some way, set up the general question your novel is asking and answering. And hopefully by the last page you will convey an answer to that question.
Meanwhile, the reader should have some idea about the setting right away. For example, what season is it? Where are the characters? What is the time period/special world/era? What is the mood? The elements you convey quickly in the beginning set the stage for the story to follow. And that my writerly friend, is a lofty quest.
Last week in a writing class, I shared the opening to one of Lauren Groff’s stories, Delicate Edible Birds as an example of a great first page/paragraph. This is not only beautiful writing, but also tells us a great deal about; location (Paris) mood (dark), era and conflict (WWII) and weather (rain) all in an imagery filled (wings of dark water…street corners as elbows, etc.) poetic style that seduced me as a reader, to continue on. (Read the pretty words in the image to the right.)
A reader should not have to wonder about fundamental questions while trying to slide effortlessly into your story world. This means you’ll have to provide some answers pretty quickly, like on page one.
If you can capture your reader’s curiosity, tickle their emotions, and deliver a character that does the same, then you’ve created a winning first page — one that will engage and mesmerize your audience.
The perfect first page draws readers in from the beginning and tempts them to keep reading. This is your first impression, your chance to hook readers and get them enthusiastic about the story to come. So take the time, use all your creative senses and get it right on page one. It’s not impossible, I promise, and it’s a challenge that’s SO worth it.
Writer Unboxed has a section called “Flog a Pro” where they ask people to read first pages of works by famous authors and then comment on whether or not they were moved to continue. Many say they were not. Reasons include too much detail about the setting or not interested in the characters, but usually the reason was simple—no tension. Reading sites like this is a great way to get some ideas for your own work.
A Sense of Home
My childhood homes were many, chaos filled and transitory. My mother’s wanderlust disrupted life whenever we found a place to call home. I attended too many schools to remember, learned to disconnect from friends with ease, finally making no friends, because within that ‘ease’ was heartbreak every time I had to say goodbye. Those goodbyes generally occurred every year. That was the timeline: one year. Then mom got itchy feet, sold everything she owned, and move on to a new life, believing the grass is always greener somewhere else. It never was.
These days I jokingly call her the merchant of chaos, but that appellation is a thin veil masking the pain, abandonment and shattered reality of what should have been a refuge. Because of her, the concept of ‘home’ was alien to me; what is home? What and who should be in it?
I recall vividly, when I was ten years old, returning from school one day to a garage sale on the front lawn, all our furniture being sold, my bedroom set included. I loved that bedroom set with a French provincial white four poster bed and matching vanity. It was mine. How could she sell it?
That day, my bedroom furniture went off with an old woman. The red tail lights of her truck at the corner of Stanton Street, blinked, then turned onto 35th and disappeared. A deep root of resentment set in my bones that day. I knew with the fading of those tail lights we would soon move, leave our house, school, friends and start over, again.
Over the next three years my parent’s fights grew to legendary proportions; arrests, house fires, crashed cars, broken bones, or them disappearing for days on end, leaving me to tend my three younger brothers. I learned home was not a safe place, not a place where I could get attached to anything, or trust those whom I should have been able to trust the most. And though they loved us, my brothers and me, we were forgotten in their war. Dad slipped into alcoholism and mom, her bizarre gypsy ways, including, but not limited to giving things away with no regard for what was paid for those things or what they meant to the holder. Twice we ended up in a house with no furniture. Dad would buy new, she’d get mad and sell it all again. Dad finally disappeared with the last furniture sale.
I left ‘home’ at thirteen, then moved back because I had nowhere to go. At sixteen I left again, for good. I couch-surfed, lived in a car, a church basement and was blessed by a cousin who took me in.
It took forty years of roaming humanity’s desert to finally find a safe place to call home. Now, I have one with gardens, water view and a loving husband who swears (after our last move) we will never move again–music to my ears. We lived in our last house over a decade and we will stay in this one till we’re too old to go up the stairs, then it’s a condo, we’ve decided. I thrive in the normalcy of his steadfast plans. I’ve learned home is more than a house that can be sold, left and abandoned, it’s who is in that house that makes it a sanctuary. Home is no longer an alien concept to me. Home is my unwavering husband, no matter where we live.
My wander-lusting ‘merchant of chaos’ mother resents my normalcy and mocks me with her teen-angst voice whenever we argue. We argue a lot. Thankfully I’ve come to understand she is not a well person. She is an eternally rebellious and trapped teenager who wants to leave home, and I am the parent. To her any belongings, children, husbands or homes are shackles and must be banished, escaped and left behind.
For example, last year after we moved her into a fairly posh retirement residence, they had a Halloween dance at a neighboring rec-center. After not speaking to me for a week because I left her in a ‘home’, she called and asked if I’d drive her to the party. When I arrived she descended the stairs slowly so I could take in the full view of her costume; a black and white striped prison uniform with a chain belt.
She got into my car without a word, sat smiling and looking forward, her point made.
I shook my head, started the engine and said, “Do we need to stop somewhere to pick up a ball and chain?”
Now, that one year mark has hit. She’s serving her sentence in the ‘home’ but is planning an escape. She has one friend left who can drive (during the day) and they think they’re going on a road trip, you know to where that grass is greener, and apparently where men have hair and teeth. They are in their eighties and need naps about every two hours. I don’t think they’ll get far, I think that hair and teeth will be fake, and I know the grass won’t be greener.
We have told her if she tries to leave this safe haven we will never help her find one again. She knows we mean it this time. And though she has these little rebellions, I don’t think she will actually leave the retirement center where they feed, medicate, entertain and allow her the freedom to come and go with no strings. I think she’s finally grown up enough to recognize the need for a home.
Our mother, regardless of antics loves us deeply in her own dysfunctional way, and in that love is our sense of humor, humility, and yes, finally a sense of familial home.
No matter how long you’ve been a writer, how many craft books you’ve read, studied and made part of your writerly DNA, a refresher never hurts. I firmly believe that if you choose to be a writer you’ve chosen a life-long apprenticeship. And if you stop learning, changing and growing, your writing will likely go stale, fall flat on the page and die there unnoticed.
So, I get excited when I learn something new – which in my life is pretty much every day.
Yesterday, at the EPIC Writer’s Group that I often lead, we had a guest speaker, Elena Hartwell author of the Eddie Shoes Mystery Series. Elena spoke to our group about story structure. In her talk she used a term I had heard but didn’t really appreciate. The word was Denouement.
A quick Google search gives us a definition; ‘Denouement is a literary device that can be defined as the resolution of the issue of a complicated plot in fiction. The majority of examples of denouement show the resolution in the final part or chapter, often in an epilogue. Denouement is usually driven by the climax.’
The difference between Resolution and Denouement is that Resolution is when the main problem or conflict is resolved. The Denouement is the very ending.
In class we used the example of one of my favorite ‘I’m home sick today’ movies, Notting Hill. You know, boy (Hugh Grant) gets girl (Julia Roberts), loses girl, girl wants boy back. Boy is an idiot and loses girl again. Then finally BOY GETS GIRL. Anyway, if you know the movie you remember the scene at the very end where Hugh Grant sits on a bench in the park and Julia Roberts lovingly reclines her pregnant self at his side. This revealing of the happy couple in their happy world is the characters in their new world order. This is the Denouement, this is him (our hero) after his hero’s journey, returned to his normal world, but forever changed.
I love learning new writing terms, how to apply them, and where they belong in the story structure.
I’m looking forward to Elena Hartwell’s 4 hour workshop in May. Class description; How to Build Tension with Objectives, Obstacles and Stakes
Stories require tension. From memoir to mystery, sci-fi to romance, comedy or tragedy, tension keeps readers turning pages with a need to know what happens next. So what can writers do to increase tension? One way is to focus on characters’ wants and needs. Investing each character with something they want, putting something in the way, and having high stakes for the outcome, makes stories compelling. Clear objectives, obstacles, and stakes make your stories the kind readers can’t put down. This workshop will help writers of all levels put these concepts into practice.
May 18th 2019
EPIC Writer’s Workshop 9am – 1 pm $70.00 for EPIC members $85.00 for non-members – Frances Anderson Center 700 Main St. Edmonds, WA.
Join Elena Hartwell for a 4 hour writing workshop, How to Build Tension with Objectives, Obstacles and Stakes.
Space is limited, so sign up TODAY at www.EpicGroupWriters.com
About Elena; In addition to her work as a novelist, Elena teaches writing workshops. She also does developmental editing, working one-on-one with authors on novels, short stories, and plays. If you’re interested in working with Elena on a project, please contact her.
When she’s not writing or coaching, her favorite place to be is at the farm with her horses, Jasper and Radar, or at her home, on the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River in North Bend, Washington, with her husband, their dog, Polar, and their cats, Coal Train and Luna, aka, “the other cat upstairs.” Elena holds a B.A. from the University of San Diego, a M.Ed. from the University of Washington, Tacoma, and a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia.
(Photo credit: Mark Perlstein)