Write Despite

The write-20-minutes-a-day-for-365-days-come-hell-or-high-water challenge

Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Stick To The Point

The flashback is dead. It’s at least on life support. Readers don’t want excursions into the past, complete with scenes and dialogue, to learn about a character. As writers of fiction, we’ve got to stick to the storyline.

I guess this is pretty sound advice. Flashbacks handled poorly just interrupt the narrative train and slow things down. But I have to say that handled well, I think they can be magical, blurring the line between past and present and showing how one leads into the other. Check out Dennis McFarland’s novel, The Music Room, one of my favorites. It’s chockfull of flashbacks, and they’re as memorable as the storyline, if not more so.

But flashbacks do present myriad structural challenges, and that’s why I’m keeping away from them in my new project. A workshop teacher once told me that flashbacks are evidence that the writer isn’t able to “bring the past into the story in a natural, seamless way.”  This isn’t always the case, of course, but I think it’s probably dead-on in many instances.

A novel’s structure, this teacher said, includes scenes and summaries, with the latter serving as passages between scenes. Summaries are a way of telling events. They can be used to bring information from the past into the story. But they are NOT flashbacks. Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction has more to say on summaries. Check it out, if any of this is resonating with you.


Week of Living Dangerously

Oh, the humanity. We haven’t seen this kind of drama at our house since the potty training weeks. Or maybe the newborn, sleep-deprived weeks. Or maybe ever.

Why am I telling you my woes? Not sure. Maybe I’m just tired. And broke! And addled. Writing about it takes me outside the here and now, gives me distance to breathe and to see it all from a new perspective. So here are the events that unfolded of late in our little world.

Saturday: Discover lice on my daughter. Lice! First encounter with these critters. Frantic call to pediatrician, several trips to drug store and many, many loads of laundry ensue.

Sunday morning: Water pours from garage ceiling. Trusty Plumber is called, who traces it to leak in kitchen that’s been dripping for, well, years.

Sunday night: Just as we’re heading to bed, water pours from kitchen ceiling.

Monday morning: Trusty Plumber returns and fixes upstairs toilet leak (yuck). We now owe Trusty Plumber small fortune.

Monday night: Dog begins vomiting uncontrollably. Vet consulted. Dog returns home with instructions to stay away from the good rugs and eat boiled chicken and rice.


Scamp, in happier times.

Tuesday: Dog appears near death. Returns to vet who admits him to hospital, takes x-rays, runs blood work, and keeps him on IV-fluids all night and all next day.

Wednesday: Dog diagnosed with acute pancreatitis. Sent home with four different medications and total bill that would get me halfway through that European vacation I’ve been dreaming of.

Thursday: Lice still hanging on. Panic prevails.

Friday: Lice spread to other family members. Panic turns to hysteria and, at last, professional is consulted. (Yes, they have such things.) Lice Lady combs all family members, entertains us with stories of professional nitpicking, and leaves us with magic comb, runny mousse, peppermint spray, and bill that would get us through the rest of Europe.

Saturday: Cage housing two parakeets gets much-needed cleaning, when we discover one bird can’t use his claw. Emergency-weekend, exotic-animal-vet consulted. Bird determined to have either terminal tumor or broken leg, which could be treated with x-rays, cast, calcium supplements, pain meds, and many follow-up visits—to the tune of what would get us home from Europe in style. Bird is very regretfully put to rest—for a much smaller fortune.

Skip forward to today, where things have settled to the point that we can laugh about some of it. (A tiny, little bit of it.) And now I can write it all up, give it a sideways spin, skew it toward the hopeful, maybe even the humorous, and move on. How else could I write what sounds like a casual and unintentionally heartless account of losing my little bird? (His name was Gatsby, by the way—Daisy died two years ago. I loved him. I miss him. And his buddy seems sad in the big, empty cage without him.)


That’s Gatsby on the left, looking kind of meek beneath his buddy, Cirrus.

But hey, maybe a character I’m writing about will live through these things now. Maybe she’ll decide to become a Lice Lady. Or fall in love with the Trusty Plumber or the (apparently very wealthy) exotic animal vet.

Maybe not. In any case, it’s important to keep perspective. It’s only money, right? Only bugs, only dog mess, and brown, rancid water and dry rot.

This week reminded me of what one of my professors used to say: “Disaster can strike on any street corner.” And certainly the last week or so has been stained in a much larger sense with real disasters. Ricin in the mail, explosions in Texas, and of course, bombs and the shelter-in-place manhunt in Boston. Our lovely guest blogger, Adrienne Kerman, was at the marathon, and then locked inside her home in Brookline for days afterward. We’re so grateful for her and her family’s safekeeping during this time. Our hearts go out to all of Boston. And to West Texas. And to all the others involved in such horrors.

So I’ll comb, and mop, and clean. And write. And be thankful it was the week it was, and not the week that could have been.

Stay safe, people. Write well. Check your kids’ hair.


In The Beginning

Has anyone submitted a proposal to an agent or editor who asks to see just five pages of a project before deciding whether to read the rest? It really makes you think about beginnings. What makes those crucial first pages (hell, first sentences today) work? Ask this question and you’ll get different answers: They must grab the reader and never let go. They must cast a spell, drawing the reader into a spellbinding fresh vision of the world. They must demonstrate a dazzlingly original and captivating voice.


I knew a guy in college, a fiction writer, who took this sort of advice to heart. The opening line of his first novel: “F*** you,” she screamed. No, I’m not kidding. This guy went on to become an English professor and to publish fiction, though perhaps not that first novel. It makes me laugh now, but I tip my hat to him. He was just trying to figure it out and taking his best stab. Isn’t that what we’re all doing?

There was a time—and I guess I’m dating myself here—when a story could start slowly and softly, when readers would tolerate a gentle build-up in narrative tension. Now it seems people want to be shot out of a canon when they read fiction. In this age of instant messaging and 24/7 connectivity, non-stop action is the rule, unless you’ve already got a bestseller to your name, in which case you’re given more credit for knowing what you’re doing.

Beginnings are critical. They always have been. But at a time when a little more emphasis is placed on them—thanks to the ever-shrinking national attention span—beginnings matter more than ever. I’ve pasted twenty, timeless first lines here that most folks agree work pretty well.  Take a look, enjoy, and follow the link to read the rest.


100 Best First Lines of Novels

The editors of American Book Review selected what they consider the most memorable first lines of novels. The titles on the list span centuries and genres and include classics and contemporary novels that are certain to become classics. Use this list to test your literary knowledge.

  Quote Author Title Year
1. Call me Ishmael. Herman Melville Moby-Dick 1851
2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice 1813
3. A screaming comes across the sky. Thomas Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow 1973
4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Gregory Rabassa) One Hundred Years of Solitude 1967
5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. Vladimir Nabokov Lolita 1955
6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Leo Tolstoy (trans. Constance Garnett) Anna Karenina 1877
7. riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. James Joyce Finnegans Wake 1939
8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. George Orwell 1984 1949
9. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities 1859
10. I am an invisible man. Ralph Ellison Invisible Man 1952
11. The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts 1933
12. You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. Mark Twain Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1885
13. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. Franz Kafka (trans. Breon Mitchell) The Trial 1925
14. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Italo Calvino (trans. William Weaver) If on a winter’s night a traveler 1979
15. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Samuel Beckett Murphy 1938
16. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 1951
17. Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. James Joyce A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1916
18. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. Ford Madox Ford The Good Soldier 1915
19. I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. Laurence Sterne Tristram Shandy 1759–1767
20. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. Charles Dickens David Copperfield 1850

Read more: Best First Lines of Novels | Infoplease.com http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0934311.html#ixzz2Qeu86DYL


Agent Advice

For you novel writers, a really early (or really late) Christmas present here. For you writers sick of hearing about novels, feel free to skip this one, or at least bear with me.

Last Friday, I sat in on an amazing panel featuring two agents, Jeff Kleinman from Folio Literary Management, and Ayesha Pande of Pande Literary. And I have to share.

First, let me say that sticking a bunch of wanna-be writers in a small, airless room with two sought-after agents up front is kind of like putting 50 hungry lions before a couple of delicious, chubby toddlers. The room nearly vibrated with danger and longing.

Thankfully, no one was harmed, except for me, as I furiously took notes until my little fingers ached. I learned some amazing things about getting a novel published, or not, and even a bit about pushing through a nonfiction book. Here are the most important concepts these agents talked about.

The_Voice_Logo_Picture_353192819VOICE: It’s all about voice. It must be distinctive and strong—for fiction or nonfiction. This word must have been said 30 times. Voice, people! Got it? Okay.

Character: Your main character must be compelling. Not just okay. Incredible. Kleinman suggested you interview your character with these three questions:

            Do you like your marshmallows burnt or slightly toasted?

            Do you wear pierced or clip-on earrings?

            Do you prefer the window or aisle seat?

Sound silly? Maybe. But with every answer your character gives, you should ask why. When he answers that, ask why again. And why, and why. Pretty soon, you should know more about this person you’ve created and what makes him tick.

Crafting: Make sure there’s a clear arc in your storytelling. And pacing and momentum are key. Readers must want to keep turning the pages. “I want to miss my subway stop because I was reading your book,” Kleinman said.

One way to keep the momentum going is to limit the backstory and exposition. It should only be given when the information is critical. As in, STOP, you have to know this before you go on. Otherwise, leave it out, or find a way to weave it into the action and dialogue.

Length: No actual requirement, but when pressed, the two of them basically agreed the magic word count for novels is usually 100,000 to 120,000 words. Any shorter, it’s probably not fully fleshed out. Any longer, it probably needs tightening.

Look InsideBeginnings: Your opening is all-important to keep an agent reading. Think of Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature for books, where you can read the first few pages. This is literally how books sell now. If your best stuff is 100 pages in, you’re screwed.

And something must be at stake right off the bat. Kleinman gave Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain as an example. Narrated by a dog, the book opens with him lying in a puddle of his own urine. Right away, we know something’s terribly wrong, but what? And now we’re pulling for him, care about him, want to know what happens next.

Online platform: How important is it? For nonfiction, essential. For fiction, it’s nice to have one, but, said Pande, “If I think your book has enough merit, I’ll help you with it.”

Queries: Keep them short, polite, to the point. Listing previous publications is important, as is providing any endorsements you can get. Praise from other published writers, professors, people who like your work and know what they’re talking about carry weight. Don’t tell an agent your mom likes it.

Kleinman says your query should include a “logline,” or a one- to three-sentence description of your book. He used the movie Splash as an example: “Boy meets girl. She’s a fish.” First sentence should describe how your book opens, the second one its climax, the third one its resolution.

His other tips for query letters: Whatever voice (see, there’s that word again) you’re employing in your book should come through in your query letter. If you’ve met an agent at a conference, or even the bathroom, open your letter with that. If you’ve read a book he represented and think yours is similar, mention that too.

Pande recommends comparing your book to others. “This book is Twilight meets Life of Pi.” (Okay, that’s my example, not hers.) Or say, it is “written in the tradition of _________.” She says to beware of likening your book to a classic, though. Too much expectation.

Here’s a dirty little secret they were kind enough to share: Some editors are often told not to even glance at a manuscript until they hear that another editor is about to grab it up. “They are like little lemmings,” Pande said. “They want to know it’s kind of a sure thing before they’ll even look at it.” I should note that she doesn’t agree with this practice, bless her. There’s something to be said for discovery, after all.

RejectionRejection: Kleinman says to make a rejection chart. List five or six columns across the top titled No Response, Form Rejection, Personal Rejection, Request for Partial, Request for Full. Down the left side, list agents separated into three tiers: Dream Agents, Okay Agents, and Least Appealing Agents. List three or four agents under each tier. Now send to all of them. Give them six to eight weeks to respond and keep track on the chart. If there’s no response, you’ve gotten your answer. If you get a form rejection, it means your premise or your writing isn’t strong enough. If they send a personal note and say they liked it, but still decline, that’s a better sign that you’re on the right track. If they ask for more (first 50 or 100 pages) that’s better still. If they ask for a full, then the premise is really good. If they still reject it, then they didn’t fall in love with it, and then the problem is almost ALWAYS that the MAIN CHARACTER IS NOT STRONG ENOUGH.

(By the way, I got a rejection of my own just before I saw this panel. It was from an agent who had requested my full . She rejected it with a very nice personal note saying that—guess what?—the character wasn’t strong enough.)

So there you have it. I hope you find this all as enlightening (and frightening, and overwhelming and pretty darned thrilling) as I do.

Anyone have suggestions on characters? What do you think makes a strong one—an incredible one? And unforgettable one? All tips appreciated. I’ve got some work to do.


Let’s Go For A Ride

Here’s a concept I’ve thinking about a lot lately: Narrative Vehicle. As in, a protagonist’s main goal or objective, the quest that keeps the story moving forward. The character may not know his/her goal at the beginning. The narrative arc may follow this dawning realization. But the writer has to know it.

Three months into the Write Despite challenge, I’ve found it’s helpful to articulate narrative concepts this way. It clears out some of the mental clutter and helps me focus. It also helps me select details and scenes that drive the vehicle forward and to not waste time on detours and diversions—no matter how clever they are.

Here’s a primer for anyone else out there who likes reminders.


Write well!


A Matter of Trust

When the life you lead, trying to be a person one can trust, trying to be present—really present as in LISTENING to what is said to you, not as an ersatz social scientist-novelist looking for material but as an involved friend and confidant or even mentor—when all that eats into your time alone to work, just VISIT it a little, each day, let it know you’re there, with friendly intentions (with the wish to release it and let it be its best self apart from you, even far from you), and then go on, being who you must be in the world. Trust that it will wait for you, even if it begins standing in your mind with one hand on its hip and one shoe restlessly tapping. It will wait. It will be there. Because it isn’t finally only about stubbornness or faith alone. It is also, deeply beyond the usual sense of the word, a matter of trust.
–Richard Bausch

This is a quote from mentor, friend, and much loved professor, author Richard Bausch, whose inspiring, exquisite guiding principles for writing are not to be missed. He’s been kind enough to allow us to reprint some here. And this one couldn’t be more relevant to what we’re doing.

Visit it a little, each day. That’s it. No more, no less required to be able to call yourself working.

We’re now three months into this challenge. I wondered, when I started, if I’d be changed by now. If I’d feel a restlessness, an urgency to write each day. Or to write more, or better, or if the words would come more easily, or eloquently, or melodically.

What’s actually happened is that writing has become a sort of phantom that lingers at the edges and waits for me to notice it. This is different from before, where it was sleeping undisturbed until I woke it every now and again.

I remember to write, and to think about writing, to plan, to research, to examine words and images, to stick my toe into the waters of creating, just a little.

Each day.

I visit it. And, whenever possible, sit and stay for a while. It’s a matter of trust. And we’ll continue to honor it the best we can.

How’s it going for all of you, however many months in?


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