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…]


One-Starred: The Importance of Criticism and Why You Should Take It

Flickr Creative Commons: Marco Ghitti
Flickr Creative Commons: Marco Ghitti

As some of those of you who attended the fabulous Un-conference last year know, I read all my Amazon reviews, positive and negative. And while this might sound like a bad idea—in fact, I’ve had many people tell me not to do it—there’s a method to my madness.

I admit, I began to do it because my scattergun approach to review reading wasn’t working. For instance, when my first novel, Spin, came out and I learned that my first major review was going to appear in The Globe and Mail, I had someone read it for me first to let me know if I should read it. I figuratively held my hands over my eyes until I got the thumbs up because if my book was going to be trashed in a national newspaper, I kind of didn’t want to know.

Then there were the reviews I read by accident. Well, not entirely by accident, but you read your Google alerts, don’t you? (Please, tell me I am not alone here.) Anywho, I got a couple of those, late at night it seems, when my capacity was diminished, and without thinking, clicked through to read them. And yeah, that didn’t always turn out so well. For instance, when a reviewer for the Montreal Gazette—my hometown newspaper—wrote that he thought my second novel, Arranged, was perfectly fine, “if you liked mindless pieces of fluff,” I was left pretty low, much more so than the praise the book had received from other quarters. It was like how a one-star rating needs a multiple of 5-star ratings to be overcome; the praise bounced off me, the negativity stuck.

So I felt like I had two choices: become a more disciplined person (fat chance), or find a way to deflect the bad reviews that I couldn’t help myself from looking at. And that’s when I started reading everything. Because if I read everything, I reasoned, no one review would have much of an effect. They would all cancel each other out, blunt their sharp edges by bumping against one another, and I would be immune.

If I read everything, I reasoned, no one review would have much of an effect. They would all cancel each other out, blunt their sharp edges by bumping against one another, and I would be immune.

That’s the theory anyway, and it mostly works. But an added benefit was that I learned things from reading my negative reviews, much more than from the positive ones. Seriously, I did. [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…]


Why Write?

writer2Part of my job description as an editor is to keep writers from getting discouraged as they struggle to publish and publish well.  It’s not easy, since it takes a lot of effort to learn the craft of writing, and once you break into print, your readership tends to build slowly.  Even writers who are prepared for these natural roadblocks often give up – I can think of several clients with promising first novels who I wish were still writing.

Maybe the answer is to change the focus, from writing to publish to just writing.

Of course, you want to publish.  You want to share the joy of your creation with other people.  It’s nice to have the marketplace affirm your skills.  And it would be even nicer to be paid for writing, if only because it gives you more time to do it.

But if all you’re interested in is making money, there are easier ways to do it.  I once had a potential client who said he didn’t want to spend money on having his book edited unless I could guarantee it would earn $100,000.  I don’t think I need to explain to Writer Unboxed readers why we parted ways.  So don’t lose sight of the other reasons for writing. [Read more…]


Is It Really Your Duck?

DuckThanks to the internet, it is now easier than ever to get information about the publishing industry.

Even if you live in a ghost town, you can connect with writers all over the world, via blogs, social media, forums.

The downside to all this connectivity?

Someone, somewhere, is going to say something to piss you off. It will seem blatantly ignorant, wildly unfair, or simply, utterly wrong.

You are going to see other writers who seem vastly unqualified achieving levels of success and stardom while you continue to plod along, unrecognized and unrewarded.

You’re going to see fellow writers get into squabbles, celebrating schadenfreude and snickering about the “behind the scenes” dirt.

And at some point, you’re going to dive in.  A comment here. A flame war there. Suddenly, what was just a diversion is now a soul-consuming drive.

The secret to serenity.

And now, a joke. Sort of.

A harried Type A businessman went to a yogi, high on the top of a hill.

“They say you have the secret to serenity,” the businessman puffed, mopping at his brow.  “I have high blood pressure, I am stressed beyond belief, and I am at the end of my rope.  Teach me the secret.”   [Read more…]