Openings: Intrigue Versus Engagement

Mass-1024x698A great deal has been written about openings.  Without question they are important.  The opening is the first impression.  It creates a story promise.  It poses questions that need answers.  It pulls us into a story world.  It sets events in motion or at least establishes a mood.  We meet a voice, sense the story’s purpose, get a hint of its meaning and generally settle into the flow of something already moving.

In short, we are intrigued.  Indeed, most advice about openings is geared toward enhancing our curiosity.  Ray Rahmey’s first page checklist, posted here monthly, is an excellent yardstick for measuring what makes openings interesting.  Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages is a detailed discussion of what makes openings uninteresting, listing in order of importance the reasons why agents dismiss manuscripts and suggesting what you can do avoid that.   The term “narrative hook” has its own Wikipedia entry.

It’s pretty hard not to get the idea.  The first job of an opening is to intrigue.

Or is it?

Research psychology has some interesting things to tell us about why people seek out entertainment and what gets them involved in it.   To us it’s obvious why we need stories and why they appeal.  To scientists it’s a great puzzle.  Why do people get caught up in events which they know cannot be real?  What causes people to feel strongly about fictional characters, argue with them and even re-imagine their outcomes?

Yes, scientists really study this stuff.  Seeking out a story to experience shows to scientists what they call to “intentional motivation”.  The processing of a story then involves “sensory memory”, “working memory”, an “episode buffer” and finally retention in “long term memory” (LTM).  While we speak of hunts and campfires, scientists posit “Attribution Theory”, “Cognitive-Experiential Self Theory”, “Cultivation Theory”, “Social Judgment Theory” and “Thematic Compensation Hypothesis”.

Being caught up in a story excites scientists to terms like “transportation”, “anticipatory empathy” and “counterfactual thinking”.  Most significant of all is the reason that readers sink into a story at all: “Disposition Theory”.

I’ll save you some time.  Here’s what all that means… [Read more…]


The Writer’s Eye and the Writer’s Hand

IMG_1430Because the universe loves me, I found myself in Paris recently with nothing to do but sight-see and visit great museums. I made my way to the Pompidou, which had a mind-boggling retrospective on the works of Jeff Koons, whose iconic Balloon Dog you see here. Upon investigating Koons’ life and work, I discovered that some of his earliest attempts at visual representation were nothing more than finding magazine ads that piqued his interest, framing them, and calling them art. Clearly he had artistic ambition, and also artistic vision, but his ability to exercise his vision? Not so much. So we can say that at that point in his career, the artist’s “eye” had developed further than his “hand.” But why are we talking of Jeff Koons? He’s an artist, right? And this is WriterUnboxed, not ArtistUnboxed, no? So let’s examine this notion of eye and hand from a writer’s point of view.

For the sake of this discussion, we’ll say that our writer’s eye is our understanding of what we want to express, and that our hand is our ability to capture and convey those ideas. The advancement of these attributes, the development of both the writer’s storytelling interests and the effective exploration of those interests, is the basic arc of a writer’s career. We go from not knowing anything and not knowing how to express it to knowing much and having many strategies and tools for expression. That’s the growth of a writer. That’s something we can chart.

So now what I’d like you to do is make two lists. [Read more…]


Resisting the Lure of the Shiny New Idea

8942564359_3a88d3523d_zThis past weekend, I had a business trip to St Louis, and something happened that almost never does when I’m traveling: I wrote in the shuttle on the way to the airport. It’s a fairly long slog, about 90 minutes, and often I have a whole bench to myself, but I’m not one of those writers who feels she must work at all times. Nor did I this time—I just…er…wanted to.

When I got to the airport, I had more time to kill and…wait for it….I wrote some more. On the way home, I actually opened my laptop in my crowded seat and wrote another thousand words, which means I wrote nearly five thousand over a weekend in which I wasn’t planning to write at all.

Every book is a lot of hard work, and between that seductive moment of conception and the finished offering there is a wander through the desert.

Anne Stuart used to exuberantly post on a loop we were on together, “it’s alive!” and I’ve always loved the visual. That moment when a book takes its first gasping breaths, and sits up and starts to breathe on its own without me propping it up in a thousand ways. This book has been difficult to get up and breathing. It has gone through a number of incarnations. I just couldn’t see where it needed to go, but the main character wouldn’t leave me alone. Frustrated, I shoved it on a back burner for a year and went off to write other things.

I don’t often do this. Everyone who has written for any length of time knows that the best part of a book is when it first comes to you, dressed in gossamer scarves, as shimmery and magical as fairy godmother. “Write my story,” she says in her sonorous voice. “I will not be any trouble at all, not like that—“ she casts her eyes toward the current book “well, you know. With me, your fingers will fly across the keyboard, and we’ll enchant everyone who reads us, and we shall rise to the top of the lists and sell everywhere in the world and —“ [Read more…]


Author Epiphany: I Film-Track My Novels

Flickr Creative Commons: Insomnia Cured Here
Flickr Creative Commons: Insomnia Cured Here

Epiphany Part 1 arrived in my living room as my husband griped at another Turner Classic Movie marathon Friday night.

“But it’s Katharine Hepburn!” I balked. “One of the greatest character actors ever!”

I’m addicted to old movies. Black and whites make me swoon and don’t even get me started on Technicolor.

My husband merely shook his head. “I’ll never understand why you like these when it takes an act of God to get you to the theater for a new release.”

“Because these aren’t movies about surly Teddy bears or Tom Cruise sprinting from danger again,” I argued. “These are mini-time capsules. From the costumes and scenery to the plotlines and cultural messages— I’m gathering history details. Educational entertainment!”

And the second I said it, I realized, yes, that’s exactly it. It’s the same in my reading and writing. Not only am I a historical fiction devotee, but I also advocate for the past teaching us something in the present. My preference is for stories that make me think back about how it was, as a catalyst to change how it is. It’s why I write contemporary-historical dual narratives like my latest release The Mapmaker’s Children. I appreciate being entertained and educated without the didacticism of a classroom. I like feeling my time has been well invested in things that enrich my perspective and enable me to speak intelligently on a topic I may not have known prior.

This is why I yawn through Will Ferrell movies, despite liking him as an actor. And why I smuggle Venti Starbucks cups into the theater to make it through the latest Marvel Comics action-adventure. I need art to work a little harder than that for me to truly enjoy the experience. I know, I’m an awful demanding patron.

My imagination is much like my stomach. Everything I put into it influences its state of being. It craves hearty nutrition and aches at too much sugar. It has violent, allergic reactions to certain fare and appreciates recipes with a long tradition of excellence. Simply stated: I am what I put in me. And I prefer to put in Little Women with Katharine Hepburn.

Epiphany Part 2. While watching above mentioned classic film on my couch, I was multitasking: working on a requested playlist of songs related to The Mapmaker’s Children for a blog. I was struggling on compiling contemporary songs (i.e. I just kept humming “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”). I don’t listen to music while I write. I’m one of those “black hole” writers. No music, no phones, no sound. So I can hear every heartbeat of my characters, every note they want to sing.

However, I realized then that something else had become a staple of my creative process: watching old films at night when my brain was too tired to wordsmith anymore. They are my soundtracks—my quasi-playlist of inspiration. In a snap, I had list of movies I watched multiple times over the three years of writing The Mapmaker’s Children. Without being conscious of it, I’d studied these films: the backdrops, the character portrayals, the cultural attitudes they sought to evoke, and the ones that permeated with and without intention. Even in my down time, I was information sponging.

Since the blog specifically requested songs, I thought I’d share my classic film-track for The Mapmaker’s Children with you, Unboxed Writer friends. I’m listing them by year because it’s impossible for me to order by preference. All are outstanding movies that I highly recommend. [Read more…]


Using Tricks From Other Writers

Flickr Creative Commons: Sarah Reid
Flickr Creative Commons: Sarah Reid

Even after 20 years as a journalist and three published novels, I still get stuck; my crappy first drafts still fill me with despair; I’m still convinced other writers know how to write faster, deeper, and smarter than I do. So I read writing blogs and books on how to write and newsletters on writing better. And here’s the thing about writing advice, from the gems in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to the piercing truths in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules on Writing: It’s only good advice if it works for YOU.

Over the years I have found several bits of writing advice that work for me. They may not work for you, but I hope they’ll illustrate how you can pick and choose the tips that fit your unique process.

Ray Bradbury’s lists

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury describes how he makes lists of nouns to spark ideas. I do this when I teach creative writing to kids. I set a timer for one or two minutes and have them write down as many nouns as they can. I do it myself when I’m stuck or having a bad writing day. Sometimes my lists have nothing to do with my work in progress, which is fine. Sometimes they surprise me. Sometimes my list is a poem.

For Bradbury, “These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull. The lists ran something like this: THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.”

That list, years later, turned into Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes. Set a timer; write a list. See if it works for you.

Copying the masters: Richard Russo

After spending a year on a novel that went nowhere, I had a difficult time with writing the beginning of a new novel. After many false starts, I decided to fall back on an old trick artists have used for centuries: Copy the work of the masters in order to perfect your own art. I love Richard Russo, so I opened NOBODY’S FOOL and studied the first sentence:

“Upper Main Street in the village of North Bath, just above the town’s two-block-long business district, was quietly residential for three more blocks, then became even more quietly rural along old Route 27A, a serpentine two-lane blacktop that snaked its way through the Adirondacks of northern New York, with their tiny, down-at-the-heels resort towns, all the way to Montreal and prosperity.”

I’d never opened a novel with a description before. I had never thought of opening a novel with a description. But it appealed to me. I loved the scene Russo set in a single sentence, the visual image it called up in my brain. I knew I wanted my novel to open in a small town in the Adirondacks. So I wrote this:

“The train station in the village of Westport, N.Y., a mile west of the town’s block-long business district, is the kind of quaint, whimsical building that makes people think, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a little town like this?’ The station is small but elaborate; a ghost of the wealth that once flowed into the Adirondacks in mahogany paneled train cars with lush velvet curtains and monogrammed portmanteaus. Cheerful yellow siding wraps around the station, and the roof is adorned with gables and copper spires and slate shingles and other beloved Victorian embellishments so picturesque it makes you want to put the whole thing in your pocket and take it home.”

It unlocked me. Once I had those first few sentences I put Russo away and wrote my book, the way I like to write. Try it with one of your favorite authors. You may surprise yourself. [Read more…]