It’s Christmas Day, so I thought I’d offer new fiction & memoir writers a little gift of ‘writing mechanics’ for the coming year of writing well.

Each of the 17 short stories in Claiming One, plus many others I’ve written are crafted to be their own little worlds.   Which means multiple ways of starting each story.

If you have an idea for a story, try several of these starts.  See which one sparks you to continue writing.

 

! Frame the story [here, in a dream] the story keeps coming back to this dream, so it acts like a frame for the story being told:

In the dreams Mr. Arreaga, the old baker, acted like he didn’t hear the cracking sound in Raymond’s chest, like cartilage snapping.

! Have the narrator say the most important thing on their mind:

I know I’m dying.

! Again, Have the narrator say the most important thing on their mind but don’t use the word I, Me or My:

First thing in the morning they’ll be coming for Suzette and Daniel.

! Show the narrator’s frame of mind:

My voices are all on the inside, afraid to come out.

! Jump in in the middle, no overly long explaining:

First off, stop trying to figure out what started it all between the two of us.

! Tell us something provocative:

She sounded so damn good on the phone.

! Narrate, setting up a dilemma:

It took hours to find the exact shade of blue polo shirt he used to wear back when he was the assistant manager for the Globe Tire shop in Torrance.

! Open with a letter, email or blog post:

My Dear Little Girl, This is me, finally getting the courage up to write.

! Narrate, introducing a character who isn’t the narrator:

When we were both fifteen, Anna stood in the center of Pious X Girl’s Senior High quad, smiled, winked and started yelling.  Out came very cuss word that she knew or could make up for the occasion. Loud and clear so nuns for miles would hear, even the ones working at St. Linus’ on the next street over. 

! Start with a memory:

What I remember most from that day was his nails.  Thin bands of bone white, curt in length, like the words he had for my mother.  He found me in Granny’s sewing room, made up into a bedroom for me. 

! Open with conflict:

The guy at the back table, the one rustling his newspaper every five seconds, Bobby’d take him out first.

! Start with Sights/smells/sensations:

Crystal hadn’t opened her eyes yet when she smelled the stench. Roses. She hated roses. She peeked out from under the sheet and saw the huge glass vase on the night stand; looking rosy, smelling like death.

! Begin with a song reminding who/where/what:

The first time Pauline ever heard Rod Stewart sing “The Killing of Georgie” she was in the Fox Hills mall parking lot, waiting in the back seat of Vita’s white 69’ Impala.  It was Southern California, November 1976, she was 19 and she thought to herself: This is the best song Bob Dylan’s ever done.  

! Start with a point in the past that you will eventually return to:

It was January when Daniel said he didn’t want her to see him this way.  He told her to go.  Five months before he had to, he said leave.  He said it to save her.  Because if he had to watch her go through this, all the way to the end, then he’d have to see that it truly was the end and he was trying so hard to obscure the view.

! Begin with a description of an article that symbolically drives the story:

It was the most wonderful Christmas Gift: I’d never seen anything like it for real. I mean that I could hold, that was any chance of being mine. A red book with gold edging. Big. Like a pad of school paper Big. But this was fancy, a Writer’s book, he’d said. He’d pointed out the silver ribbon sewn inside, to keep your place. And the space on the first inside page for my name. Under the word JOURNAL.

! Straight narration setting state of character, time, place:

Terry’s shoved me into the back seat of the Yellow Cab that’s come to take us to the emergency room. My wrists sting, like jellyfish burns. The rest of me is numb. Even my brain is lighter, my ears clogged, like I’m underwater. It’s far after midnight.

! Again, Straight narration setting state of character, time, place:

Third period, Welding, just before lunch.  Things had settled down now, here in the fifth week of class, the guys finally reached a saturation point of noticing a girl in shop. Boys. The drill presses and lathes where cake to figure out compared to boys.

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Yearning, Grace & Beauty

December 18, 2011

My goal with my writing is to create pieces readers want to experience Voices you want to listen to. Problems you want to understand. Endings you’ll remember. Stories that might end up being possibly imbued with some grace and beauty. Maybe you’ll read them, and find some scenes of yearning and promise. But not because I build them that way. Instead, because you can look  back at them and find those things there yourself.

That’s never an easy thing – planning to be a writer who moves folks. Kind of prideful, if you take that approach, no? Do any new authors believe in themselves to that extent? Really? Perhaps. But me, I’d rather work my way into that state.

So I begin my stories by working with the visual, the physical and the visceral. That’s my way of writing: via these three things.  It serves me well enough that I can build on these aspects of craft in my storytelling. But the full trifecta of storytelling is the Craft, the Art & the Mechanics. Think of that, novice fiction writers, when you’re building your pieces. We can’t rely solely on art, or any one of the other two things it takes to end up with pieces that may have Yearning, Grace & Beauty.

Here’s an opening of one of the stories from Claiming One:

What Rikki remembers is jumping up off the couch for a Diet Cherry Pepsi as the commercial started. That and a wobble-feeling that strobed behind her eyes, just before the TV’s volume rose up to a crashing level and she dropped like a corpse onto the rough carpet, face first.

The walls shook from the BAM of her contact. For a slip of a girl, 103 lbs max, she made a big noise going down. A full four minutes passed before Sheppard flushed the toilet and found her, still out cold; the commercials done with and the TV news going full blast again about another body found in the Ramparts District.

Let’s say you want to go for a visual of your own – someone skipping. Good writing never means multi-syllable words or sermon type oratory. You may know how to spell (or at least look-up) the word ‘gambol’, but if you mean that the character skipped, then pause. Open up the dictionary and find definition of the “fancy” word you’re considering. After reading its definition –  Gambol, n, “To leap or spring, in dancing or sporting; now chiefly [written] of animals or children”.   If you use the online Oxford English Dictionary, besides the definition you’ll also see what years the word was commonly used, this one chiefly in use from to 1508 up to 1850.  In writing what we are after is detail, precision. We aim to bring the visual to life – Close the dictionary and use skip if you meant skip.

In future posts I’ll be discussing more about the Craft, the Art and the Mechanics of writing well. And of the other three aspects as well; the physical, the visual and the visceral. Maybe readers can comment on what they feel makes their stories work.

Authors Who’ve Moved Me

December 9, 2011

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I love some writers. I can read and re-read their work once or even twice a year. If they are writers of series work I can start with their earliest character intros and revisit them from the first to their last book.  What makes the work worth it?

Humm. Can I take that intangible and put it into words?

In the case of Cruddy, by Lynda Barry, it was the joy of reading a shocking tale told in a voice that didn’t try to be shocking at all.  As hard as it seems to be able to do, Lynda Barry managed that. Her audacious matter-of-fact showing us some big, hard things in a bored, teen’s jaded voice took my soul and squeezed.

And I loved every moment of it.

Barry takes us through two story lines. And each are just as gripping as the other. Her dialog for disaffected teens is spot on.

 

 

I was lucky enough to get a manuscript version of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s  Funeral For Horses. It was her first published novel, and I read it from start to finish in a single night. Again, it was the voice, and what that voice showed me. Publisher’s Weekly called it Brutally lyrical. And it’s hard to add more superlatives to that. This one involves a brother and sister, a mental break, a search, and a past. And the author managed to wrap all of that into a tale I couldn’t put down.

 

 

This next one is older, first published in 1972, but still in print. P.S. Your Cat is Dead! by James Kirkwood.

Funny. Funny, funny, funny. And in 1972 I really needed a laugh. If you’re a new writer, look at this novel. Ask yourself what’s going on in each scene.

De-construct the shape of this book: what leads to what? How are the stakes raised? Where are the breaks in tension? Tear down the scenes and see if you can bring something like this to the pages you are working on. This is what I suggest to many of my coaching clients.  If you don’t feel like doing it with this book, do it with one you’re in love with instead.

Jimmy Zoole is having a rough day, a rough relationship, and a rough life. Like the book cover reads, “It’s New Years Eve. Your best friend died in Spetember, you’ve been robbed twice, … and the only one left to talk to is the gay burgeler you’ve got tied up in the kitchen.”

And nothing could be funnier.

Ann Patchett’s two books I love the most are The Patron Saint of Liars and The Magician’s Assistant both about women trying to rebuild their lives in new locations. We seem to have themes when we write, and sometimes, more than one novel from the same author might bring up similar problems for characters to solve, even when the storylines are as completely disparate as these two are. In both cases it’s the following the characters that make the stories. Have you ever been reading when you come upon a line that makes you lay the book against your chest, and you just exhale in delight? I found that in these two books.

On Being a New Author

December 2, 2011

Cover Art for Claiming One

I love writing fiction. It isn’t something I think about doing. It’s more something I find myself doing.  Talking about the doing of it is not a second-nature thing for me, I’m not a rhetorician.

Instead, walking in a public place, I hear a scrap of conversation and I’m off creating a world around a string of words that are stuck to my mind.

Can I detail what went on in that flash of inspiration or creativity? Diagram it for you? Sometimes. Can I detail moments like that in a blog – enough to give you a plan for your own to use? Again, Sometimes. Other times, I can hardly type words with letters in the proper order on my first try.

I guess, the teaching I do comes from somewhere off center, it’s not always from a How-To-Do point of view.

I’ve also found that being capable of creating is long march to being published. There’s always some new writer who dreams of glory and another one who simply wants to write. They act differently. Work along dissimilar lines.  I’m not sure that Creation has a direct link to Recognition.

Myself, I think I got lucky.

Luck struck me on three levels. If I’d missed letting one of those luck-bolts hit, I might not be writing this author’s blog now.   First off, I was lucky to be sitting in the back of a car when the driver and front passenger both stepped out at the same time and slammed their doors, leaving me alone with a ringing in my ears. That moment sparked a line I spoke when we got back on the road, and that line became to basis of a story. Luck.

That lucky-bolt hit repeatedly. It struck every time I sat down and gave some story a subsequent chance to be better on the page in a newer draft. Sometimes that meant cutting things out. Sometimes it meant bringing more up to the surface from down where I hadn’t let myself reach yet.

It’s very scary reaching into a place you can feel, but not see. The third bolt hit when I paid attention to some voice within me that spoke; saying one day, Send this off to someone.  And I did.

So here I am, lucky; to have a magical-mind that can create something from nearly nothing. To then have that work-mind telling me to try harder so the stories will turn out stronger. And lucky to listen to myself and take that chance of sending my work to a publisher. That faith-mind was the hardest to get around.

But it’s done now. No turning back. The next challenge is funneling magic, work & faith into being this new author.

How you you see yourself when it comes to being a writer? Let us know in the comments.

Claiming One, and other stories – Due out mid January, 2012