The opening is the most important part of any story or book, one of the topics I’ll be discussing in my upcoming Seattle writing class, Tell Your Story, spend as much time as necessary finding a strong lead. Rewrite the lead until it sparkles, presenting a lively, exciting opening to the story.
In my fall Seattle writing class, I’ll discuss the five best ways of opening a story or book: summary, scenic, anecdote, inventory and beginning at the end. Each of these techniques pulls the reader into the story quickly. The type of lead you use in a given story depends on your material and the audience you want to reach. Scenic leads lend themselves to active stories; summary and anecdotal leads often work best with more reflective stories. But there’s no rule about it; go with what works best!
These leads allow you to get to the point of your story quickly and easily, something I discuss in my Seattle writing classes. The trick is to make them appealing as well. Writers using summary leads often employ wordplay or humor to liven them up.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens
“The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once famously observed that “Hell is other people.” And he worked from home. Imagine if he had been one of the millions of us who are forced to navigate the psychic minefields of the modern corporation.”
Summary leads are quite effective, though they are just one strategy for a lead. In my fall Seattle writing class, Tell Your Story, I’ll also discuss how to use scenic leads, anecdotal leads, inventory leads, and starting as the end as strategies for getting a reader interested in your story immediately, something I teach in all my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and travel writing classes.
Kevin Bailey knows fish. As founding director of the Man & Sea Institute and affiliate professor at the University of Washington, he developed a deep and profound knowledge of fisheries and love of the sea. Near the end of his academic career, he wanted to learn how to tell stories about fish and fishing so that he could reach a larger audience. He enrolled in my Seattle writing classes in 2011 and began turning his rich background into compelling stories. He has published three books since, the most recent, Fishing Lessons: Artisanal Fisheries and the Future of Our Oceans, which he spoke about in my summer Seattle writing class.
“I’d written many scientific papers, but nothing for people outside of that circle,” says Bailey. “In Nick’s classes I learned about nut graphs and learned about the importance of platform.”
His latest book follows artisanal fishermen and their relationship with the larger ocean. In a series of portraits, he tells the stories of these fishermen, their success at long lining, hand lining, weir fishing and other techniques that harvest fish sustainably, both in financial and ecological terms. His ability to integrate his storytelling and scientific background makes the book an outstanding read. He’s refined the techniques he learned in my Seattle writing classes.
“After a 40-year career in fisheries, I wanted to write about the Pollack fisheries, which boomed like a gold rush,” he says. “I wanted to tell the story but I needed to interview the old guys before they died. I took Nick’s class and wrote the first chapter and workshopped it. I decided to do a book proposal.”
That proposal turned into his first book, Billion Dollar Fish: The Untold Story of Alaska Pollock and launched his writing career. “It was such a joy to write these books,” he says. “Now I’m searching for my next book…”
Interviewing is an essential skill for any writer, one of the skills I’ll be teaching in my upcoming Seattle writing class. Almost all non-fiction articles and books require some interviewing as part of the research. Novelists, poets and others frequently need to interview people. There are several reasons for interviewing: 1) Background info; 2) Support quotes; 3) Full fledged interview for profile, story or memoir or novel background.
1) Explanation of ground rules – Tell subject about yourself and your credentials. Explain where you want to publish the interview, profile, etc. Also discuss how you’ll use their answers, whether they can review the profile before it is published.
2) Contact a magazine or newspaper to see if you can get them to agree in advance to publish the interview. This helps a lot. Famous people want to know that their time is well-spent, that the interview will be published. If you can assure them of this, they’re more likely to grant the interview.
3) Time – Plan ahead: really newsworthy people are frequently difficult to get in touch with. Contact them early, and always double check date and time right before interview.
4) Place – Make sure it’s quiet, and in a place where you won’t be interrupted. Restaurants are not the best place to use a tape recorder.
5) Prepare – Like a good boy scout, interviewers should always be prepared. Saturate yourself in the subject. Find out everything you can about them. Ideally, you should know the person so well that you can predict with great accuracy how they will answer your questions. This is obviously much easier with a famous person. Example, when working on my first book, At the Field’s End, I interviewed the then relatively unknown Marilynne Robinson as well as the famous poet Gary Snyder. It look a lot more work to come up with questions for Robinson.
We’ll discuss all of this in more detail in my upcoming Seattle writing class. Sign up early to get a spot!
How do you tell your story? It’s such a fundamental question, but it’s not always easy to answer.
A big part of succeeding in telling your story lies in knowing how to tell a story. What is a story exactly? According to Jon Franklin’s book, Writing for Story, a “story consists in a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” Franklin’s definition is a great place to start, part of the reason I use it in my summer Seattle writing class.
Stories consist of a “series of actions,” not description, analysis or editorializing, but taut, discreet, dramatic actions. Most stories begin with a “complicating situation,” something that threatens the main character or throws him or her off balance, requiring the character to act so as survive the threat. Great and sympathetic characters struggle to overcome the threat, battling along the way, and so creating the drama of the story. By the end of the tale, the character needs to overcome the complicating situation to end the story with the proper resolution.
Having just returned from Italy, I have a number of fascinating stories to relate. As I sit down at the computer, the experiences are fluid and fresh: memories of touring the Roman Colosseum, seeing the famous frescoes of the life of St. Benedict at Monte Olivetta Maggiore, and hiking the spectacular Path of the Gods along the Amalfi coast. Early on, the memories have little structure to bind them together. As I write them down, I ponder Franklin’s definition and try to apply it to them. As I do this, I write an outline of the story in advance, which allows me to organize the story. This is one of the principal assignments in my summer Seattle writing class, Writing for Story, one of the keys to learning how to tell your story. Let me know if you’d like to sign up!
In my summer Seattle writing class, we’ll discuss In Medias Res openings, one of the most effective ways of opening a story. To write in medias res, you’ll need a strong scene from the middle of your story. Pick the most vivid and dramatic moment in the story, for example, when you’re rappelling off a mountain, the canoe is about to go over the falls, or the killer is making his last stand, or the argument is reaching its climax. You’re looking, in other words, for a scene that has conflict and drama. These qualities are essential to any in medias res scene, because they will bring the readers quickly into the story.
After finding the scene, divide it in half. Use the first half of the scene in the in medias res lead and save the second half of it for right near the end of the story. By dividing it in half, you’ll create suspense within your story. The reader will get hooked on the first half of the in medias res scene and then read to the end of the story to see what happens. In the process, readers will finish the rest of story.
After putting first half of scene in lead, make transition to actual start of story. For example, tell how you came to make a rafting trip down the Salmon River. Readers will follow this discussion because it will reveal whether you survived going over the falls. From time to time, foreshadow the falls and give the reader hints about what is going to happen.
Once you’ve reached the point where the second half of the in medias res scene occurs, insert it without repeating the opening scene. Just use summary or a repeated detail to remind the reader of what happened at the start of the story. Then go through second half of scene. End with a conclusion that makes sense of the trip and gives the reader a sense of what you learned from it.
In my Seattle writing classes, I teach students the full range of narrative writing techniques as well as how to get published, including social media and book promotion. Now, obviously you have to write at a high level to get published, but you also need to be savvy about promotion. Mindy Halleck, an award-winning author and social media master, gave a superlative talk to my spring Seattle writing class about book promotion and author platform. These are subjects many writers would love to avoid, but as Halleck pointed out, you have to know something about them if you want to succeed as an author.
“If you want to be published,” she said, “you’ll want to learn what I have to say.”
Halleck insists writers need a brand, a website and a social media presence. She advises people to start small and build from there. While many people say this, usually publicists, Halleck’s opinion carries considerable weight because she’s also an author, who has to balance the need to write with the need to publicize her work.
“You need a platform if you want to sell books,” she told my Seattle writing classes. “You need an assortment of ways to engage your target market. The platform is the way you connect with readers. This matters whether you’re self published or traditionally published.”
Halleck is an award winning fiction writer, novelist, and social media and writing instructor. In 2014, after many years as a non-fiction author she released her debut novel, Return To Sender, a literary thriller set on the Oregon Coast in the 1950’s. In talking about social media to my Seattle Writing classes, she brought a refreshingly practical and pointed perspective to the discussion. She offers tips on all of this if you subscribe to her newsletter at MindyHalleck.com
For more on book promotion and narrative writing, please consider signing up for my summer Seattle writing class, Writing for Story.
In my Seattle writing classes, I’ve learned that structure is the biggest challenge for most writers. While most writers understand sentence structure and paragraphing, they have trouble organizing paragraphs into a larger story. This is one of the things we’ll discuss in my upcoming summer Seattle writing class, Writing for Story. One of the best ways of structuring a story is to begin with an outline, This needn’t run pages and pages: sometimes even a simple three or four sentence outline can do the trick, such as the one I’ll explain below. By using this outline, whether for a story or book, you’ll discern out the larger shape of the story in advance. If you fail to do this, it’s like building a house without a strong foundation; it can easily collapse.
The dramatic outline allows you to chart the emotional peaks and valleys of the story so that you’ll know where you’re heading when you sit down to write. The five short statements below describe the major actions in the story. There is one statement for each major focus. This is not like the outline you wrote in English composition class; these statements highlight on the dramatic actions in story. They help you focus on what’s essential to the story, one of the things I address in my Seattle writing classes. This is a conflict—resolution outline, with the conflict introduced in the first statement, developed in the next three statements, and resolved in the last statement.
1) Complication – Make it simple and active. Have you chosen active verbs to show action? Is the main character included statement? How will you illustrate the main action? Do you have the source material for this? Is the action dramatic enough?
2) Development Action – Clear, cogent, related to complication.
3) Development Action – Clear, cogent related to complication, tied to previous development, tied to main character.
4) Development Action — Clear, cogent related to complication, tied to previous development, tied to main character.
In my writing classes, I emphasize the need to bring people to life on the page. Strong characters are the heart and soul of every great story, whether fiction or nonfiction. To make your story compelling, you have to ensure that readers care about your characters, whether in an epic like Moby Dick or a nonfiction book like Basin and Range. Even a topic as seemingly dull and unpromising as Great Basin geology can enchant readers if the story comes through someone who cares deeply about it. This is exactly the strategy John McPhee employs in his book, Basin and Range. McPhee is a writer interested in everything: the Merchant Marine, Russian Art, the Swiss Army, the cultivation of oranges, the building of birch bark canoes, the collection and consumption of road kills. Yet he doesn’t assume a similar level of interest from his readers. Instead he courts them by seeking colorful individuals through whom he tells the story and so entices readers into the subject. In Basin and Range, he chose the geologist Kenneth Deffeyes.
“Deffeyes is a big man with a tenured waistline. His hair flies behind him like Ludwig van Beethoven’s. He lectures in sneakers. His voice is syllabic, elocutionary, operatic. He has been described by a colleague as ‘an intellectual roving shortstop, with more ideas per square meter than anyone else in the department–they just tumble out.'”
McPhee’s quick character sketch provides readers with a glimpse of the energetic, idiosyncratic geologist, the kind of man who should prove a worthy guide to the narrative. McPhee selected Deffeyes as the central character for his personality and familiarity with the Great Basin. The geologist serves as the entry point into the subject. Though him, general readers learn to care about such arcane subjects continental drift, subduction zones and seafloor spreading. They might never crack the cover of a geology textbook, but once they get to know Deffeyes, chances are, they’ll be hooked.
We’ll discuss how to create strong characters as part of my upcoming Seattle writing classes. There’s still room; let me know if you’d like to sign up!
Pitching story ideas is a critical skill for every freelance writer. Virginia Smyth, the executive editor of Seattle Magazine, recently spoke to my Seattle writing classes about how to make the perfect pitch.
“One of the most important questions in a pitch is, ‘Why now?’” she said. “We try to always have a timely angle for our stories.”
Smyth encourages potential freelancers to read the magazine carefully so they’ll know what it publishes. She says that every magazine has a formula, with columns, features, and other kinds of stories. For example, Seattle publishes a lot of stories on the food and dining scene in the city.
“When you pitch, I don’t care why you want to write the story,” she says. “Why is it right for the magazine? Make me think it has to be in my publication. I want to know why it’s right for Seattle. Do your homework. Be familiar with the publication, I get a lot of pitches where it’s obvious the writer has not read the publication.
“What’s the tone? What the demographic? Most publications have Writers guideline to help with this. Think of the elevator pitch: sum it up in three to five sentences. Make sure there’s a hook. What is great about the story? Use the pitch to demonstrate your writing style.”
Making the perfect pitch, also requires that you mention the research that you will do for the story.
“In another paragraph, tell what sources you will use. What are your sources? Why are you the right person to write the story? I’m working on a story with a writer about the Native American community. Why are you the right person to tell the story?”
Make sure to include examples of your previously published work, preferably as links, when you’re making your perfect pitch. “I want to have some confidence that you can tell the story for the magazine,” she says. “Then wait 30 days or so before getting in touch again. Be persistent but don’t stalk.”
In my writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop, I always teach students how to pitch, including the Ten Top Tips for Pitching, the first step in getting happily published. There are so newspapers and magazines that neophyte writers often become overwhelmed. Where do they start? How should they approach publications? What’s the best home for their story? These are some of the questions I answer in my Seattle writing classes, travel writing classes, and online writing classes I teach for The Writer’s Workshop. I treated the first five tips in a previous posts. I’ll include the second five of these suggestions in this post. Here’s a guide to getting happily published.
1) CONCENTRATE YOUR EFFORTS – Select a few publications and focus on them. Subscribe to them or read them regularly to understand the magazine’s style, content, history. This is one of the things I emphasize in my writing classes.
2) WRITE A PITCH LETTER – Your letter should reflect all of your research of a publication. It should interest the editor, provide evidence of professionalism, and convince editor you are ideal for job. As I emphasize in my Seattle writing classes, the letter should be short, about 250 words.
3) FOLLOW UP WITH EDITORS – Email the editor within a few weeks of sending letter and/or manuscript. Did he or she get the pitch? Will it work for the magazine? Try to get a response. Once you get a response from a publication, keep going back to the editor. If you publish one story in the magazine, it will be easier to publish more.
4) SPECIALIZATION – At least at first, zero in on a particular field, develop an expertise that will make you valuable to magazine editors. Specialize in areas you know from your job, hobby, interest or passion. As an amateur vintner, I use that expertise when writing about wine.
5) PAYMENT – The amount of money you’ll make from a given article is often proportional to the publication’s circulation, from $25 for a local or specialty publication to several thousand dollars or more for a feature in a national magazine.
The difference between the right word and the almost right word…
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
…with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always.
I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced…the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always.
Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you.
Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world.
It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where the mischief starts. That's where everything starts unravelling.
Just follow your hero.
First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!
Get it down. Take chances.
Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.
The forms of things unknown and the the poet’s pen…
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
William Shakespeare (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Pleasure in a good novel…
The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.
Literature is nothing but carpentry.
Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Writing a novel is a terrible experience.
Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system.
There are only two or three human stories.
Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes for thousands of years.
One false word, one extra word…
One false word, one extra word, and somebody's thinking about how they have to buy paper towels at the store.
For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth.
For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.