"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Poets for Living Waters
Call for Work – Gulf Coast Poems

Poets for Living Waters is a poetry action in response to the BP Gulf oil disaster of April 20, 2010, one of the most profound man-made ecological catastrophes in history. Former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky describes the popularity of poetry after 9/11 as a turn away from the disaster’s overwhelming enormity to a more manageable individual scale. As we confront the magnitude of this recent tragedy, such a return may well aid us.

The first law of ecology states that everything is connected to everything else. An appreciation of this systemic connectivity suggests a wide range of poetry will offer a meaningful response to the current crisis, including work that harkens back to Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing regional effects.

This online periodical is the first in a planned series of actions. Further actions will include a print anthology and a public reading in Washington DC.

If you would like to submit work for consideration, please send 1-3 poems, a short bio, and credits for any previously published submissions to:
poetsforlivingwaters@yahoo.com.
Memorial Day, 2010


According to Yale historian David Blight, Memorial Day got its start after the Civil War, when freed slaves and abolitionists gathered in Charleston, S.C., to honor Union soldiers who gave their lives to battle slavery. They opened a mass grave and dug individual graves for the dead. It was a ten-day project and culminated with a celebration of peace, freedom, and hope. Blight's book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory is one of the best resources for information on this subject.

Meanwhile, huge thanks to all the men and women who wear our uniform and to their families who give too much.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

SUBMIT TO "THE LIFE POETIC iPOEM CONTEST"
Submission deadline: July 4, 2010
Sage Cohen invites you to submit up to three, unpublished poems that represent "the life poetic." She'll be choosing 365 for inclusion in a "Life Poetic" iPhone app that features a poem a day. Enter to win prizes valued at more than $400! 
Jennie Shortridge
As promised (drumroll please) I'm starting a series of interviews here on writing and writers.
Jennie Shortridge is on a roll. Her luminous fourth novel When She Flew, was inspired by true events, and after much research, she let her imagination run wild to create this evocative story of an Iraq war vet raising his daughter in the wild and the single mom/policewoman who breaks all the rules when ordered to separate them, risking everything to help them escape. This story explores the issues of raising children in today’s world, living within the system as opposed to rejecting it, the toll of war on families, and introduces a young heroine raised in the forest who thrives through the worst of circumstances.  Publishers Weekly says, “Examining people willing to sidestep the rules in pursuit of a greater good, Shortridge’s fourth novel recalls Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven…” . Jennie's appearances and popular workshops are filled with her signature grace, humor, and common sense about crafting stories that linger in a reader's imagination.

Are you a full-time writer or part-time, and how do you organize your writing time?I have been a full-time writer since 1995, and have always found it best for me to write in the mornings, and then do business in the afternoons. During book promotion cycles that goes a bit catty-wampus, of course. It's like the gym: I'm always trying to get into a good solid routine.

When did you first start writing and what did you write?
Well, FIRST first were slews of stories my entire childhood, and poems, and then songs when I was a working musician, and then ad copy and marketing materials when I was in business, and then . . . well, then I became a writer. I started out writing magazine features, but always wrote fiction on the side.

What is the toughest part about being a writer for you and how do you get past it? The actual business of being a published writer is not for sissies.  I've developed a Gore-Tex like skin and a circle of writer friends who will drink with me when necessary.

Could you talk about your writing process?
From a mechanical standpoint, I take a couple of months to fully develop a story idea that has been floating in my consciousness for any number of years, meaning, I do a lot of writing about the story, about the characters, and as the characters. I do research if necessary, before and during the writing. Once I launch on a draft, it takes me roughly a year to get the story down, which I do linearly, from beginning to end. Then, after I get input and feedback from various readers, I begin revisions, which may take anywhere from three months to another year to complete to my editor's satisfaction. I write in the mornings when drafting, on my computer, with my email and Facebook shamefully turned on. I get up every hour or so and take a walk around the house or stretch or gaze into the fridge. That pretty much sums it up!

How do you take risks with your writing?
Because I know I will most likely write from the same life themes, no matter how many books I write, I endeavor to write completely different characters in unique situations. And because I don't think a book is worth writing if it doesn't wring something deep and dark out of your soul, I do my best to go "there," to expose some kind of emotional and universal truth that doesn't necessarily get much coverage elsewhere.

What books are on your nightstand?
Four books I've been asked to blurb, along with The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow and An Alphabetical Life by Wendy Werris. I will get to the first four. The last two may take a while.
 
What are you working on now? I enjoyed the experience of writing a story inspired by true events with When She Flew, so the next one  springs from a news story as well. A few years ago a man left his Olympia home on a short trip and went missing for six weeks. He turned up many states away on the TV news as a John Doe with amnesia. His fiancee found him and brought him home to begin life anew together, even though he no longer remembered her. I've switched genders and have a female character who flees Seattle, ending up in San Francisco with amnesia. Her fiance goes to get her and she becomes almost an amateur sleuth as she tries to remember and unravel what happened to her. As it turns out, quite a lot did!

 Jennie is going to be the keynote speaker at Summer in Words, June 25-28 in Manzanita, Oregon. For more information on the conference contact me at jessicapage (at)spiritone (dot)com.

Friday, May 28, 2010

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.  ~Ray Bradbury
"When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered· the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls· bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory." ~Marcel Proust The Remembrance of Things Past

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Feel good story:
Go to NPR to hear about how the New York Botanical Garden has recreated Emily Dickinson's garden. 

"In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as our education. But the channel is always there, and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves."
-- Saul Bellow

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Luck
And here's a thought-provoking post on the role of luck in a writer's life by David Rocklin:
Get lucky. Stay lucky. Most writers, not to mention those who read them, follow them, wish them on to success, count those two among the most important of elements to the writing life.

Get lucky. Write something that lays a beating heart on the page. That captures the right agent’s attention. That finds its way to a publisher who values it, changes it not at all or for the better, and clears the shelf-space decks for it.
Please file under a disturbing thought provocation:
The Guardian is reporting that children are more likely to own a mobile phone than a book. Words fail me. 
More Elements of Successful Storytelling

Narrative is woven from adversity. Unless you’re writing inspirational essays, most stories aren’t about happy events. Stories stem from adversity and someone in the story is somehow vulnerable. While there have been memoirs published about triumphs and good times, most clever memoirists, like their fiction-writing comrades, know that a reader turns the pages when the person in the story is in the worst trouble. Vulnerability is the key to making conflict sizzle because invulnerable characters rob a story of suspense and tension, while vulnerable characters make us worry and fret. While events in your story might lead to a happy ending, the road to happiness is paved with misery, danger, and gut-wrenching choices.

The adversity in the form of the main problem or conflict in a story must first of all be inescapable and if possible, provide a fresh perspective on the human condition. Think about how in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park he uses an island to isolate his characters amid the gigantic beasts, stirs in a big dose of human greed, and then a fierce storm swoops in to complicate matters, which in turn sets the dinosaurs free, including the devious, man-eating velociraptors. Escape from the wily monsters seems impossible because the characters are in the middle of the Pacific while the storm rages and two of the characters are unarmed children, and are thus doubly vulnerable.

Adversity also comes in the form of dilemmas. Whenever possible give your protagonist a difficult moral choice or decision, or series of them. In William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, when a mother must choose between son and daughter for immediate death camp extinction, it’s clear that she’s faced with a damned if you, damned if you don’t dilemma. Generally your characters will want to avoid making the choice, will feel guilt or repercussions from the choices, and factors that complicate the choice will keep piling up until they choose the lesser evil or take the moral high ground. Often a choice is embroidered into a story because the character arc –the particular way a character must change in the story--demands it to prove the character has been transformed by the story events.

Your theme is the central unifying idea or concern of the story; runs throughout the story; the protagonist is centrally involved in the theme; and is often a fairly simple concept such as justice or greed. For example, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is about greed. Theme works as glue in the story, adds to the unity, and provides connecting threads that lend it significance and cohesion. Theme is not the message, it is more like the soul of your story, providing its boundaries. You make decisions about your story based on your theme

As a character creator you’re part terrorist, part angry god, part puzzle master. Fiction is about interesting people in a dizzying passel of trouble. Readers are not interested in dull, passive or lazy characters, the type who would rather complain to his or her therapist than make a move or take a risk.

Readers don’t want to slip into a world where everything is lovely and easy and static. They’re longing for a character whose life is much messier than their own. Don’t you find this aspect of fiction writing fascinating? In real life, we fret our way through a crisis, but cannot stand a fiction character that is not up to her eyeballs in havoc.

Protagonists and main characters are people with baggage and emotional needs stemming from their pasts. These needs, coupled with motivation cause characters to act as they do. For example, in Silence of the Lambs Clarisse Starling is propelled by childhood traumas to both succeed and heal the wounds caused by the death of her father.

These emotional needs are linked to inner conflict A fictional character doesn’t arrive at easy decisions or choices. Instead he or she is burdened by difficult or impossible choices, particularly moral choices, which often make him doubt himself and question his actions. Inner conflict works in tandem with outer conflict—a physical obstacle, villain or antagonist--to make the story more involving, dramatic, and events more meaningful.

Finally, effective stories teaches us something about about the human heart.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More Elements of Successful Storytelling

‘Tell me a story’ is an appeal from our most primeval selves. You can aspire to explore the human heart, to analyze cultural conditions, to propose social reforms and to discuss philosophical ideas, but if your want to fascinate, to hold on to your readers, also tell them a good story.” Jerome Stern

Storytelling or narrative is at the heart of entertaining and informative writing. We recognize when narrative is absent in writing, as when it’s lacking in a dull report, a vapid memo, or a rambling speech.Readers instinctively want an underlying structure, tension and drive in the words you string together. They also long for intimacy, to be allowed into the mind of the reader and/or characters. You see, a writer creates worlds and story people and translate them through his or her fingertips, and sometimes the stories that emerge are coherent and deep and roiling with conflict. And sometimes the story in our head gets lost in the translation of tracing it onto paper. So to help with your translation, here are more elements of successful storytelling:

A plot begins when the status quo the ordinary world occupied by the main characters, is disrupted by a significant event. This event—called the inciting incident— pushes the story forward quietly or like a rocket launcher, but it always introduces threatening change. Once this event occurs, the world will never be quite the same, the character (the protagonist) who usually is caught off-guard, is propelled to take action, forced to make decisions often based on self protection, and to establish his first of several goals.

Compelling fiction is based on a single, powerful question that must be answered by the story climax.This question will be dramatized chiefly via action in a series of events or scenes. If you are writing a romance, the question always involves whether the couple will resolve their differences and declare their love. In a mystery the dramatic question is usually about the murderer and his or her motives. In The Old Man and Sea the dramatic question is will Santiago catch the big fish and thus restore his pride and reputation.

The storyline focuses on the most significant and interesting events in the protagonist’s life. In non-series fiction and memoir, these events are likely to leave a lasting imprint.

Motivations are entwined with backstory. Motivation, the why? of fiction, is at the heart of every scene, fueling your character’s desires and driving him to accomplish goals. It provides a solid foundation for the often complicated reasons for your character’s behaviors choices, actions, and blunders. Motivating factors provide trajectories for character development and arc, as a character’s past inevitably intersects with his present. Your character’s motivations must be in sync with his core personality traits, values, and understanding of the situation.

Desire is the lifeblood of fictional characters. Not only do your characters want something, they want something badly. Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea desperately wants to restore his reputation and also wants his friendship and partnership with the boy to resume. And in the lonely hours when he is far out at sea, struggling to hang on to the fish and fighting off sharks, we see his fierce desire acted out and the price he pays.

Fiction, as does memoir, focuses on a series of threatening changes inflicted on the protagonist. In many stories these threats force him or her to change or act in ways he or she needs to change or act. Often too, what the protagonist fears most is what is showcased in a novel or short story. It can be fear of losing his family, job, or health with this dreaded outcome providing interest, action and conflict.

A story builds and deepens by adding complications, twists, reversals and surprises that add tension and forward motion. Plots don’t follow a straight path; instead there are zigzags, dead ends, and sidetracks. Each of these elements adds more obstacles, more decisions to be made, paths to be chosen. At each twist or reversal, chaos, disorder, arguments, struggles, bewilderment, and dilemmas should result.

Monday, May 24, 2010

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
Eat your words is a Pacific Northwest literary journal whose founders believe in art as food for our creative selves. What should you submit to us for publication? The piece that feeds you, the piece that reminds you what the hell you are living for, creating for. We are seeking short fiction, flash fiction, poetry, letters, reviews, creative non-fiction, essays, illustration, photography, audio, found art, and perhaps something we haven't thought of yet. Please send your work in a format we are likely to be able to open to: SUBMISSIONS@EATYOURWORDS.ORG. We offer no monetary compensation at this time for your original, unpublished work. We only offer to celebrate your work among other talented artists in a venue anyone with an Internet connection can see. Artists retain all rights to their own work.
Deadline for Issue #1: Wednesday, June 30

Almost AWOL
Sun coming through after days of rain. In case you're new to reading this blog, almost two years ago I was rearended while parked in traffic. Since then I've had more symptoms than I have time to list, but thankfully have continued to improve. That is, until about a month ago when it's become clear that my eye/brain injuries are causing me lots of problems again. This means I'm going to need to spend less time staring at a computer screen and more time lying in the dark with my eyes closed and performing some new eye exercises. I'll probably return to my acupuncturist and his kindness, because somehow under his touch, I don't even wince when he places needles near my eyes.

However, I love to add to this blog and I'm going to keep gleaning beautiful quotes and helpful information about the writing life. But I'm also going to cut back on my computer time.  With that in mind, since I've always loved interviewing authors, I'm going to put together some interview questions and then post interviews on this blog. I'm especially interested in asking writers about craft and how they persist during hard times.If you are an author interested in being interviewed or know any, please contact me at jessicapage (at) spiritone (dot)com.

When I wrote my latest book Thanks but This Isn't For Us for Penguin, I was really ill from my head injuries and had to stop writing for about three months and when I continued, would write for 20 minutes, then go to bed for two hours. Write. Go to bed. Repeat. It wasn't much fun, but I managed. It also helped me to have something to focus on (although my ability to focus was pretty laughable). So every time someone writes to me and tells me that the book was so helpful or funny or wise, I'm both amazed and proud of myself. Persistence does work.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Friday, May 21, 2010

Matisse
  Tea
There are some paintings, that once you see them, you'll never be the same. You return to them again and again in your memory and when you can go back to visit, like an old friend, you see all the lines and curves and shadows and the world stops once more, yet at the same time, takes you into a new realm. I was just checking in on-line because I was trying to remember the name of a Picasso at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, when I found this Matisse painting, that once hung near it. And seeing it, just pierced me with remembrance.

In this rendition you cannot see all the shadows and intricacies, the sense of a late afternoon.the mood that just slips into your veins as you gaze at the colors, and feel the sly wit hidden in the scene. He used one of his models, his daughter and his dog Lili in the painting. No wonder it feels so intimate. So, all I can say is that we should all visit Matisse wherever he resides. And in between writing, view art whenever possible.

And here is the Picasso that hangs nearby, and it made me rethink everything I knew about him and that this is one of the most tenderly drawn portraits I've ever seen. Because this is a small print, you cannot see all the detail, but I used to just stare it at, like I was starving, and I've been searching for these exact colors ever since.  Young Girl With a Blue Veil

Wisdom from Sonia Meyer
"You write, because your passion is the written word. You make love to  life, in order to give birth to creatures made of words. The incubation is often longer than for any other creature born of mind or body. Labor is long and painful. But at long last your creature born of passion has come to life. You have to let it fly. But the journey ahead is perilous and instead of friends is full of judges, who decide who will live and who will die. First are the hunters, agents for those who have conquered
the power to decide who can seek the light and who will be banned to the realm of shades. You, mother of your creation tries to shadow your hatchling with wide spread wings. But those who judge your hatchling from the ground below and you, will rarely see eye to eye. You are from different spheres. When, suddenly, luck comes to your aid. One of your own is chosen to claim a piece of glory for its own. You cannot help but glow with relief and pride."

Read more at Dosha, The Perilous Flight of the Maiden Novel

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The weather changed about every 20 minutes today and included sun breaks and a rainbow and downpours and clouds so ominous they made you want to crawl in bed. With a book, of course. 
Notice what you notice.
~ Allen Ginsberg
Matt Love at Everyday Genius
In my book Thanks, But This Isn't For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected, I mentioned that writers come in two varieties: those who overwrite and those who underwrite. However, there is another important distinction: those who outline and those who don't. Or cannot. I fall into the wisdom that everyone should know as much as they can about what they're writing before they begin, but leave room for discovery and inspirations as you chug along. If you want to watch the process of a short story being outlined, constructed, and edited, check out Matt Love's posts this week at everydaygenius.com.

 He wrote: A year or two ago I realized that I no longer get writer’s block, or at least not what I used to think writer’s block was. For instance, I never sit down for my day’s writing and produce nothing, nor do I stare at the blank screen, watching the annoying blink of the cursor for hours. Instead, “writer’s block” for me usually just consists of a day where I write nothing worth keeping. A couple hours at the keyboard might produce only a failed few pages of story, or a section of a novel that I know is going to get thrown away, but I almost always get something down.

The worst case of this tends to happen after I’ve just finished a long project—a story that required a lot of work, a book manuscript, or something similarly all-consuming—so that it’s been a long time since I’ve had to start from scratch. The last time this happened was January, right after I finished the manuscript for my second book. That week, I wrote the beginnings of six stories in five days, all of them failures, but failures that I had to write through before I found what became my next, a novel I’m been working on ever since. The other stories all fell apart, for some reason or another: They were too derivative (either of myself or others), too flat as language, too weak a concept to hold together more than a few pages. Most often, I just hadn’t found their voice yet, and I can only proceed so far without that. in the end, they all got put aside, waiting for me to either figure them out or forget about them.


Keep writing, keep dreaming, don't be afraid to outline

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lyric of the Unseen: Navigating Shadows in Nonfiction Barrie Jean Borich Storms have been zipping in and out of here today with high winds and on and off torrents. Love that word torrent, don't you? Here's a link to this thoughtful essay which concludes: The creative nonfiction writer writes to elucidate the unseen, in order to better interrogate, interpret, represent and illuminate some aspect or version of what really does, or once did, or will exist in factual time and space. Seeing is part of knowing, but we can't see the whole until we see the middle. 
“The element of surprise or mystery—the detective element as it is sometimes rather emptily called—is of great importance the plot. It occurs through a suspension of the time-sequence; a mystery is a pocket in time, and it occurs crudely, as in ‘Why did the queen die?’ and more subtly in half-explained gestures and words, the true meaning of which only dawns pages ahead. . . .  To appreciate a mystery, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.” E.M. Forster

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rayleen And R.L.Bury Their Luck
Another short fiction beginning that makes you sigh it's so true and alive and captivating:

"My wife, Rayleen, got it into her head that our luck died with our dog, Buddy. "We buried it in a hole in the ground," is how she put it. 

Buddy was chasing the garbage truck, like he had every Tuesday of the world, when Sissy Simmons backed her Mustang out of her driveway and ran him over flat. Thank God Rayleen wasn't home. I had enough trouble trying to calm Sissy down, because she felt just awful, which was Christian of her, considering the kind of dog Buddy was. I know for a fact he killed Sissy's cat, Muffin, and I don't know how many others. And on account of Buddy, the mailman wouldn't deliver to our end of Locust, so we all had to troop to the P.O.to collect our mail. Like I said, there was no reason Sissy Simmons should have felt all that bad about it, but she did. And it did her credit.

"Rayleen isn't ever going to forgive me." Sissy wailed. 
Marjorie Kemper

First Year Teacher to His Students

Go now into summer, into the backs of cars,
into the black maws of your own changing,
onto the boardwalks of a thousand splinters,
onto the beaches of a hundred fond memories
in wait, where the sea in all its indefatigability
stammers at the invitation. Go to your vacation,


Read more at Writer's Almanac
This poem just scorched my heart. I'm going to print it out and paste it into my writer's notebook.
Just for Fun
76 year old man memorizes Paradise Lost

It took John Basinger eight years to memorize John Milton's 17th-century epic poem "Paradise Lost." At about 60,000 words, it's roughly the equivalent of a 350-page novel. It takes Basinger three, eight-hour days to recite the work in its entirety.
It doesn't take an expert to recognize this as an impressive feat of memory. But exactly how impressive?
Until recently, there was never any objective measure of exactly what to make of the Middletown resident's achievement. For more go to courant.com
There is still time to register for Summer in Words
Go to: Summer in Words for more info

Monday, May 17, 2010

Short Advice for the day: 
The ratio of rejection to acceptance is about 12:1. Keep trying. 
House of Spiders
Here's a short story beginning from House of Spiders by Poe Ballantine that's like jumping into a cold mountain lake:

Niagara Falls, New York, everyone end of the world nervous: plants closing, the lake poisoned, people getting out, the few left given up. Max on welfare, Magger the acidhead on welfare too, healthy men in their twenties sitting at the bar till their money ran out. I poured drinks for them. Benny watched from the corner. The girls slithered in and out. They bought coke from Weasel in the back.

At the end of the night the bouncer herded all the drunks out. They wanted one more, just one more. I counted my tips. I averaged forty a night. I was lucky to have a job. I washed all the glasses and had a drink while Benny counted the till.

If you want to read the complete story go here.
Baby Steps = Big Changes
On Friday night I was out for one of my pre-sunset walks and the air was as soft and intoxicating as a patient lover’s embrace. Cats were perched everywhere or sauntering along, as if reigning over the neighborhood like medieval lords—all that was missing were their courtiers, and barbecue smells were permeating and the creek was burbling along like a song from a dream, with a few young fisherman perched at the bank. And everything, the riots of rhododendron blooms, the kids on swings, the ducks screeching in for a landing, seemed somehow new.  Later, when I returned home, when I looked in the mirror, blossoms were scattered in my hair and my cheeks were blooming with roses and I felt akin with the world.

But on to the subject of this post:

Ever since I started teaching and working with writers I’ve advocated the wisdom of baby steps. This means you don’t need to quit your job, dump your lifestyle, or get divorced in order to be a writer. Well, in my case, getting divorced was a big help in becoming a writer, but that’s a long story for another day.

Years ago, when her book Creating a Life Worth Living was published, I went to hear Carol Lloyd talk. And she said something like, “You don’t need to abandon your life and buy a black beret and go live in the gutters of Paris in order to be creative.” In a similar vein, you don’t need to toss out your life to be a writer, but you do need to commit and you do need to dig deeper into who you are, what you think, and what you dream.

What you need, if you’re a beginner, or a person ready to take your avocation/vocation more seriously is figure out baby steps that will take you from where you are now (possibly not accomplishing much) to where you want to be (writing regularly or becoming a published author.)

So here are baby steps that just might help.

Awakening
When you get up the morning you need some signal to yourself and all your levels of consciousness that you’re a writer and you’re creative. Do not slog around muttering as the coffee perks and you imagine the commute to work or as you hustle the kids through their morning routine. Take a few minutes of calm, to accomplish something that signals that you’re going to spend the day thinking and acting like a writer. I like to read poems, write poems, write down my dreams---as I’ve said many times, to dip into the river of language and archetype and imagery. To put words first as the sun appears, as the world widens before me.

Write something every day.
I know, I know. Some days are crammed with too-much to do, too many demands. Saturdays are about washing the car and errands and taming the garden.  But even ten or twenty minutes spent writing makes you feel more connected to your inner writer, more attuned, deeper. Writing daily signals your subconscious about the seriousness of your purpose and makes writing part of your daily routine. Your voice will strengthen and you will learn to tame your inner editor. It will also increase your creativity since you’ll notice more and more inspirations arriving, your confidence will expand, and you’ll think better. Now, if all these benefits were found in a drug, someone would be raking in huge profits from it. 

Practice awareness.
Last week I was in Eugene giving a talk and teaching a workshop and everywhere I went, I was noticing, paying attention. I saw so many things that make Eugene a lively and original city.  So many things that contribute to its hippie reputation. A lot of women with long grey hair. Head shops. Vegan restaurants. Outrageous bumper stickers. Bicycles everywhere. People wearing gypsy garb.  I ate lunch in a lovely downtown restaurant and kept listening in to the next table and the way-too-intimate conversation that was going on, while at another table, two men, the scruffiest in the joint, were sharing a bottle of expensive champagne. I almost went over and asked them about the champagne, but controlled myself. But I’m the sort of person when I notice something interesting, I walk up to people and ask them what or why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Change the way you talk to yourself
The inner voice that urges you onto greatness cannot sound like a headmaster, taskmaster, or dungeon operator. While the inner critic first began in childhood as a helper, over time it’s become so used to bossing us around that it doesn’t know when to stop. You need to listen in, then change the message if needed. You become what you think about all day, so make sure that this voice you’re listening to is kind, compassionate, understanding.

Steal Moments
All through your day.  To jot down notes, sketch a scene, play with dialogue. Listen in. Conjure, with eyes closed everything you’re witnessing, noticing, wishing were true. Pretend that magic really exists. Whatever it takes. You’re a writer. Even if you’re an accountant or lawyer or mom to a passel of kids, you’re a writer. Your heart is expressed in words on a page, your longings come through in stories and poems.

Commit
To a daily or weekly word count. Goals are measurable. Plain and simple. If you want to write a novel, for example, most novels run in the 80,000-90,000 word range. By writing  250-350 words, a mere page, each day you will have written it AND had time for some editing.

Before Sleep
Now if I were advising you on a healthy life or restful sleep, I’d tell you to relax and breathe deep before you slip off to sleep. However, I want you to live like a writer, so before you go to bed, instead think about your writing projects for a bit. If you write fiction, place your protagonist or your short story or your current poem in your inner movie screen and mull them over for a bit. Imagine your ending, or imagine the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist. Or, you can tell yourself that your writing solutions lie in the land of sleep.

Submit
Babies are the most transformative and astonishing beings. One day they’re sleeping most of  the day and only grinning at a few recognizable faces, and before you know it, they’re crawling across the living room, and then as toddlers are on a sort of suicide mission to explore the world, some of the exploration through their mouths. The point: most babies are fearless, always ready for their next step, venture, exploration. Similarly, you need totter onto your next step and put your words out into the world.  

Send your stuff out. To a journal, an online forum, an editor, an agent.  The worst than can happen is that they’ll send it back with a no thanks. Babies topple. Babies put nasty things in their mouths. They fail. But in our humanity, we persevere, we look forward. So it is with writing.  

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Two Raymond Carvers
Pale blue skies this morning and another lovely day is ahead. Here is a link to a piece at The New York Review of Books on Raymond Carver working with editors.

"Vladimir Nabokov referred to editors as “pompous avuncular brutes.” T.S. Eliot said that many of them were just “failed writers.” And Kingsley Amis, that laureate of cantankerousness, spoke of how the worst kind
prowls through your copy like an overzealous gardener with a pruning hook, on the watch for any phrase he senses you were rather pleased with, preferably one that also clinches your argument and if possible is essential to the general drift of the surrounding passage.
Raymond Carver, at least to begin with, was on altogether better terms with his editor, Gordon Lish, to whom he once wrote, “If I have any standing or reputation or credibility in the world, I owe it to you.” Elsewhere Carver acknowledged his debt to Lish by saying simply that his editor held an “irredeemable note.” This brief, eloquent tribute is paid in the essay “Fires,” which Carver wrote during a stay at Yaddo, the artist’s colony in upstate New York, in the summer of 1981. He had every reason to be feeling grateful. A few months earlier his second short-story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, had been published and was still being hailed and heralded by the literary world."

I'm grateful for my editors and all others who toil in this field.

Friday, May 14, 2010

And the dogwoods are still blooming.
You probably already know this one, but it is so worth repeating:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive. ~ Martha Graham to Agnes De Mille
Just for Fun
Soft blue skies this morning and since I have the office window open, song birds are nearby, warbling from on high and the birds who are nesting below the eaves (I've figured out they're jays) are swooping in and out like dive bombers. Jacquelyn Mitchard posted this link to Anne LeClaire's blog  on Facebook this morning, so I'm including it just for fun and because every time I talk with my family about my career, they usually advise "you need to get on Oprah" or "you need to write fiction" as if these tasks are accomplished in mere hours or with just a stroke of luck. 
Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep aiming high

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Touch
Glorious blue skies and soft temperatures here today and was just out watering and tracked mud all over the place. I just wanted to continue this discussion of short fiction by including the first paragraphs of Touch by Alexi Zenter. It's one of my favorite short stories and one that has always stayed with me....the imagery and emotion powerfully entwined.

"The men floated the logs early, in September, a chain of headless trees jammed the river as far as I and the other children could see. My father, the foreman, stood at the top of the chute, hollering at the men and shaking his mangled hand, urging them on. "That's money in the water, boys," he yelled, "push on, push on." I was ten that summer, and I remember him as a giant, though my mother tells me that he was not so tall that he had to duck his head to cross the threshold of our house, the small foreman's cottage with the covered porch that stood behind the mill.

He had run the water when he was younger,poling logs out of he eddies and currents and breaking jams for the thirty miles from Sawgamet to Havershand. Once there, the logs went by train without him: either south for railway ties or two thousand miles east to Toronto, and then on freighters to Boston or New York, where the giant trees became beams and braces in strangers' cities. The float took days to reach Havershand, he said. There was little sleep and constant wariness. Watch your feet, boys. The spinning logs can crush you. The cold-water deeps beneath the logs always beckoned. Men pitched tents at the center of the jam, where logs were pushed so tightly together that they made solid ground, terra firma, a place to sleep for a few hours, eat hard biscuits, and drink a cup of tea. "

Writing suggestion: Read 10 pages of your latest work-in-progress and highlight ever time you've used a color. Then ask yourself if the colors you're using are creating a mood. .  Arthur Plotnik advises: "Color imagery should be fresh and inventive, but not constantly over the top.... Sun and sky make for good practice canvases. Every mood puts its own swatch up there, be it Chaboh's ash bourbon or, Van Gogh's indecipherable lilac, or Isaac Babel's 'sun...like the pink tongue of a thirsty dog.'"

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"We are not what we know, but what we are willing to learn."~ Mary Catherine Bateson

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Congratulations to another Portland author, Monica Drake SNL's Kristen Wiig options Clown Girl

Saturday Night Live cast member Kristen Wiig is using her own money to option Clown Girl, the 2007 Monica Drake novel that Wiig will adapt into a feature script. She wants to play the heroine, Nita, a clown in crisis who works street fairs as Sniffles the Clown. Nita is barely surviving in her hometown of Baloneytown, pining for a dream man who used her to finance his attendance at clown college. As a result, she struggles to live and tries to resist the potentially lucrative prostitution trade involving clown fetishists. The dark novel was published by Hawthorne Books in 2007 and the option deal is being handled by Inkwell Management.
To read more: http://www.deadline.com/2010/05/snls-kristen-wiig-options-clown-girl-wants-to-wear-the-big-shoes-onscreen/
“A scene is a miniature drama in which a single issue is decided in specific circumstances.” Philip Gerard
Sign up for Summer in Words

Folks, there are still spaces left for my Summer in Words conference, but they won't last. Here's the skinny:

Manzanita to host the 3rd annual Summer in Words Writing Conference June 25-27
                                                                  
 Manzanita, Oregon will be  the setting for the Summer In Words Writers Conference  (SIW) at the Center for Contemplative Arts. It brings together Northwest’s best-selling authors and writing instructors for a three-day program of workshops and events. The theme for this year’s conference is Deepening the Craft. SIW provides aspiring writers the chance to network, hear inspiring advice and instruction, and take part in a reading.  Cost for all three days is $215.00; single day pricing is also available.

This year's conference kicks off Friday, June 25th with Jessica Morrell’s Narrative Drive in Fiction and Nonfiction workshop followed by Finding Focus by prolific writer Polly Campbell. In the afternoon Polly Campbell will teach Compelling Details followed by best-selling author Larry Brooks’ workshop on Pacing.
Friday’s workshops will be followed by an open forum for writers –Out Loud—which gives writers a chance to read their latest works to an audience. It will also feature a raffle with proceeds going to Write Around Portland, an organization that helps people transform their lives through writing and The Center for Contemplative Arts which offers programs in Manzanita.

Saturday morning will kick off with Nail the Ending workshop taught by Jessica Morrell followed by Bill Johnson’s workshop Dramatic Truth. Saturday afternoon will feature a luncheon with keynote speaker  and best selling author Jennie Shortridge, Staying Afloat in a Turbulent Sea: Righting the Craft This will be followed Spirit of Storytelling taught by Bill Johnson and The Art of Arc by Jennie Shortridge

On Sunday, attendees can look forward to a Question and Answer session with Jessica Morrell, Bill Johnson and Jennie Shortridge on Building Your Writing Skills. Sunday will also feature  Marian Pierce’s workshop Finding Your Characters Through Dialogue.

Manzanita, Oregon is vibrant community on Oregon’s coast also known for its love of the arts and books. The Center for Contemplative Arts serves the region with a variety of arts offerings and personal and spiritual development courses.

Visit any of the instructors’ websites or blogs:
Larry Brooks: http://storyfix.com/
Bill Johnson: www.storyispromise.com,
Marian Pierce: www.marianpierce.com
Jennie Shortridge: www.jennieshortridge.com

The registration fee of $215 covers tuition for the three-day conference, Friday Continental breakfast, Saturday lunch and keynote. The cost for the Saturday lunch and keynote is $20. Out Loud, $10.

About Summer in Words: Founded in 2008 by Jessica Morrell (author of Thanks, But This isn’t for Us, Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction, The Writer’s I Ching, Wisdom for the Writing Life, Voices From the Street, Between the Lines, Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing, and Writing Out the Storm) Summer in Words was created to provide writers with an intimate conference experience in an uplifting setting so that attendees are energized, enlightened, and inspired.

For the complete schedule or any information or to register, contact conference coordinator Jessica Morrell at jessicapage(at)spiritone (dot)com
 





Puffin Turns 70 and Chooses 70 Titles
Any time a book publisher turns 70, I say it's cause for celebration. And as a lover of lists (isn't everyone?), I've got to pass this one along from The Guardian  
And I'm so happy to see How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff  under Best, Best, Best because I've been raving about this book ever since I read it. 

The Best Mischief and Mayhem
The Twits by Roald Dahl
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog by Jeremy Strong
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend

The Best Weepies
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Truth about Leo by David Yelland
Two Weeks with the Queen by Morris Gleitzman
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

The Best to Cuddle-Up With
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
The Bog Baby by Jeanne Willis & Gwen Millward
Peepo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy by Lynley Dodd

The Best Blood and Guts
The Enemy by Charlie Higson
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Being by Kevin Brooks
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Best Swashbucklers and Derring-Do
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs by Giles Andreae & Russell Ayto
Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior by Chris Bradford
Robin Hood by Roger Lancelyn Green

The Best Heroes
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
Young Bond: SilverFin by Charlie Higson
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Best Characters
Charlie and Lola: Excuse Me But That is My Book by Lauren Child
Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll & Jan Pienkowski
Angelina Ballerina by Katharine Holabird & Helen Craig
Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs

The Best Sugar and Spice
Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley
The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
The Princess and the Pea by Lauren Child & Polly Borland

The Best Animals
Spy Dog by Andrew Cope
The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Lionboy by Zizou Corder

The Best Friends and Family
Dizzy by Cathy Cassidy
The Borrowers by Mary Norton
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

The Best Phizzwhizzers
The BFG by Roald Dahl
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

The Best War and Conflict
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Once by Morris Gleitzman
Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian
Carrie's War by Nina Bawden

The Best BEST BEST BEST!
Stig of the Dump by Clive King
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
Junk by Melvin Burgess

The Best Fantasy and Adventure
TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow
Dot Robot by Jason Bradbury
Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

The Best Weird and Wonderful
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Five Children and It by E Nesbitt
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

The Best Rhymes and Verse
Please Mrs Butler by Allan Ahlberg
Michael Rosen's A-Z The best children's poetry from Agard to Zephaniah
Talking Turkeys by Benjamin Zephaniah
Bad Bad Cats by Roger McGough

The Best Alternatives to Twilight

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
The Luxe by Anna Godbersen
Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

Monday, May 10, 2010

A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. ~ Janet Burroway

I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement. ~ John Updike

The most appealing short-story writer is the one who's a wastrel. He neither hoards his best ideas for something more "important" (a novel) nor skimps on his materials because this is "only" a short story...A spendthrift story has a strange way of seeming bigger than the sum of its parts; it is stuffed full; it gives a sense of possessing further information that could be divulged if called for. Even the sparsest in style implies a torrent of additional details barely suppressed, bursting through the seams.~ Anne Tyler
Farewell

I'm still learning, you know. At 80, I feel there is a lot I don't know.

You have to be taught to be second class; you're not born that way.

Don't be afraid to feel as angry or as loving as you can, because when you feel nothing, it's just death. 


~Lena Horne

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Amanda Davis beginnings
Blue sky full of promise and yippee, the farmer's market near my house opens today. I want to bring your attention to an extraordinary writer, Amanda Davis. Trouble is, Amanda was killed in a small plane crash when she was young and also full of promise. She was traveling with her parents in their small plane a week after her first novel Wonder When You'll  Miss Me was published.  I first read her work when she won Story's Short Short Competition and have used her story "Prints" countless times in my workshops.Her short story collection is Circling the Drain.

No one new in the beginning, not even us. It was only after the field had been combed and the beds checked under and the basements cautiously explored. Only after pantries were rummaged, barns examined, and garages turned upside down. After sheds were emptied and nooks and crannies pestered with light. Prints

That was the year we forgot our dreams and woke, bewildered, muttering. It was spring when I noticed them turning in the sky, this way and that, drifting gently on a breeze. They looked lovely from a distance but somehow I knew it was a bad sign. 

It could mean only one thing: my ex-boyfriend was back in town. Fat Ladies Floated In the Sky Like Balloons 
Happy Mother's Day
"We are not born all at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later; and the birth and growth of the spirit, in those who are attentive to their own inner life, are slow and exceedingly painful. Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth." ~ Mary Antin
How to stay out of the rejection pile
The weather the past three days has been so sunny and warm and delicious that it's hard to describe.I traveled down to Eugene to give a talk to the Mid-Valley Willamette Writers--How to Revise without Losing it and today taught a workshop, The Final Edit (by the way, I'm giving the same talk and teaching the same workshop in the Ashland area on June 5).

Today as part of my workshop I had the participants bring in the first 2 paragraphs of a story to hear feedback from the group. I explained that a writer has about 60 words or so to  impress an editor. Then we tackled each writing sample, explaining what we liked about the piece and suggested ways to make it better. It was fun and energizing and elucidating.

Along with short story openings, I want to keep talking about this subject this month. My first suggestion is one you'll also find in Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages. In this book Lukeman, who is an agent explains the mistakes that cause a manuscript to be rejected. The number one mistake that sends him around the bend is excess modifiers, and I agree with him. Nothing shouts that a writer is an amateur more than this sort of excess. Lukeman writes: “…the quickest and easiest way to reject a manuscript is to look for this overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs. Most people who come to writing for the first time think they bring their nouns and verbs to life by piling on adjectives and adverbs, that by describing a day as being “hot, dry, bright, and dusty” they make it more vivid. Almost always the opposite is true.” I can always tell if a writer is an amateur or unable to murder his or her darlings if the opening is larded with modifiers. You need to be able to justify every word in every word in every sentence. If a word doesn't have a job to do, get rid of it. If the  modifier isn't somehow surprising, fresh, or fabulous, dump it. And no adverbs. Ever. I'm serious as a heart attack about this.

And here is more information on impressing editors from the get-go at Guide to Literary Agents.
Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Short advice for the day:
Perfection= Paralysis
Raymond Carver on writing short stories:
"It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine — the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me. I hate sloppy or haphazard writing, whether it flies under the banner of experimentation or else is just clumsily-rendered realism. In Isaac Babel’s wonderful short story “Guy de Maupassant,” the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.”

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Cheryl Strayed Wins Pushcart

I just learned the news that Cheryl Strayed, another Portland writer just won the Pushcart Prize for her essay, Munro Country, first published in The Missouri Review. I know I sometimes rave about writing and writers here, but folks, you need to pull up a chair, and pour yourself a cup of coffee, tea, or glass of wine and read this essay. It's so beautiful and powerful and true it just might change you. If you're a writer, it just might reshape your soul. A huge congratulations Cheryl, and well deserved.
Publish or Perish
Just got in from a quick walk. Almost sunset here and the sky is full of lavender and gold and clouds so crazy and far flung and huge, I can barely describe them. And everything is so wet and damp and cold and quiet. Not a kid or jogger or bicyclist or dog walker in sight. At first I thought I was imagining that it was as cold as it seemed because I was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, but then I tested my breath in the air, and sure enough, there it was, puffing out before me as if it were early December.

I wanted to pass on this article in the New Yorker Publish or Perish  by Ken Auletta on the future of e-publishing.It's the one of the most thoughtful assessments  of the publishing industry that I've read.
It begins:
On the morning of January 27th—an aeon ago, in tech time—Steve Jobs was to appear at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in downtown San Francisco, to unveil Apple’s new device, the iPad. Although speculation about the device had been intense, few in the audience knew yet what it was called or exactly what it would do, and there was a feeling of expectation in the room worthy of the line outside the grotto at Lourdes. Hundreds of journalists and invited guests, including Al Gore, Yo-Yo Ma, and Robert Iger, the C.E.O. of Disney, milled around the theatre, waiting for Jobs to appear. The sound system had been playing a medley of Bob Dylan songs; it went quiet as the lights came up onstage and Jobs walked out, to the crowd’s applause.

In the weeks before, the book industry had been full of unaccustomed optimism; in some publishing circles, the device had been referred to as “the Jesus tablet.” The industry was desperate for a savior. Between 2002 and 2008, annual sales had grown just 1.6 per cent, and profit margins were shrinking. Like other struggling businesses, publishers had slashed expenditures, laying off editors and publicists and taking fewer chances on unknown writers.
More on Short Fiction
Gloomy skies again and temperatures are at least ten degrees below normal, warmer, sunnier weather on the way tomorrow.
This is from Roberto Bolaño's "Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories":

Now that I’m forty-four years old, I’m going to offer some advice on the art of writing short stories. (1) Never approach short stories one at a time. If one approaches short stories one at a time, one can quite honestly be writing the same short story until the day one dies. (2) It is best to write short stories three or five at a time. If one has the energy, write them nine or fifteen at a time. (3) Be careful: the temptation to write short stories two at a time is just as dangerous as attempting to write them one at a time, and, what’s more, it’s essentially like the interplay of lovers’ mirrors, creating a double image that produces melancholy.

And a great opening from reader Liz Prato's short story A Clean Swath of Ice: "Carla didn't mean to get carried away with the Zamboni driver."

I ask you, how could you resist a story that begins with a Zamboni driver?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Captivating First Lines
As I mentioned here recently I used to be the Writing Expert at iVillage and during that gig met many talented writers and read a lot of writing that knocked my shoes off. Of course, I also taught a lot of beginners that were just finding their way with words, but that was okay too, because it taught me so much about what sort of guidance beginning writers need.

Again, as I've mentioned, one of the best writers during this era was Linda Easley. She lives in Missouri and often writes of the history of the Ozarks and has such a knack for language that it will make you sigh with envy. Here are some first lines from her short stories:

The old man heard a twig snap and turned, drawing his hunting knife as he moved, but he was too late. – “Rhymie Jeeters”

When I was five, I was in love with my Uncle Albee. – “The Grief Line”

Pitying eyes follow me everywhere. – “Betrayal”

That Norman is thin as a swizzle stick, all angles and elbows, as my granddad used to say. – “Something About Grackles”
See what I mean? Maybe we can talk her into posting some of her short stories since she recently started a blog.
Contact:
Folks, if you want to submit short story openings please contact me at jessicapage (at) spiritone (dot) com
And if anyone knows how to add a contact page at blogger, please let me know because I cannot find a place to do so. Thanks for your patience, Jessica
First Paragraphs of A Jury of Her Peers

Skies are the color of dull pewter this morning, temperature is only 38 F and my to-do list is still daunting. A reader Norma Kramer suggested the opening of Susan Glaspell's story A Jury of Her Peers. She wrote "The story still haunts me." What I notice about this opening is that there is a disturbance in the ordinary world that I want to learn more about.

When Martha Hale opened the storm-door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away--it was probably further from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving: her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.

She hated to see things half done; but she had been at that when the team from town stopped to get Mr. Hale, and then the sheriff came running in to say his wife wished Mrs. Hale would come too--adding, with a grin, that he guessed she was getting scary and wanted another woman along. So she had dropped everything right where it was.

Opening paragraphs in any type of writing have a lot of heavy lifting to accomplish, but especially in fiction or memoir. In my book Thanks, But This Isn't for Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected I described the importance of first impressions on a reader:

Let’s think about how to seduce a reader. The best beginnings are like forces gathering, about to be unleashed on the reader. With the first words, the writer establishes his credibility, introduces viewpoint and voice, and makes the reader care about people and the story unfolding. Obviously this is a tall order for a few sentences or paragraphs to accomplish.Also, since fiction and memoir are based on adversity, typically an opening will show a character or person under stress and the story world starting to tilt off balance.

Effective openings set a story in motion, create momentum, tension, and suspense. They involve readers in the story and thus have immediacy. This means you’ll need to plan your first moves for maximum impact
*Openings also create involvement and sympathy for a character or memoirist depicted in the opening moments. If you’re writing fiction or memoir, start with a threatening change in a character’s or memoirist’s situation. This inciting incident starts the action, often opens a can of worms, and creates imbalance.
*Introduce the protagonist or memoirist or important characters, and give the reader his first glimpse of their core personality traits. These traits remain consistent throughout the story, are intricately linked to the plot, and are tested by the events, especially the troubles of the story. In fact, a plot (or memoir) will always showcase a protagonist’s primary traits.
*Use specific, sensory details to immerse the reader in the story world and situation.
*Use polished prose, figurative language, and other artful flourishes.

Keep writing and please send in more short story openings

Monday, May 03, 2010

More GREAT first lines
from short stories. They're like falling in love:

“A man without hands came to my door to sell me a photograph of my house.”
Viewfinder, Raymond Carver
“My lover is experiencing reverse evolution." Aimee Bender, Remembering
"Leroy Moffitt's wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals." Shiloh, Bobbie Ann Mason
 "In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more."Ernest Hemingway, In Another Country
"This is one story I’ve never told before.  Not to anyone.  Not to my parents, not to my brother or sister, not even to my wife.  To go into it, I’ve always thought, would only cause embarrassment for all of us, a sudden need to be elsewhere, which is the natural response to a confession.  Even now, I’ll admit, the story makes me squirm.  For more than twenty years I’ve had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I’m hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams.  Still, it’s a hard story to tell.  All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit.  Certainly that was my conviction back in the summer of 1968.  Tim O”Brien:  a secret hero.  The Lone Ranger. ..."On the Rainy River, Tim O'Brien 

If your first lines are anemic you might want to check out Donald Newlove's  First Paragraphs.  Newlove writes of the two styles that "rule writing in English, the stripped and the ornamental."  He represents both styles in this book, "Sometimes the ornamental style devours the writer's voice," he observes, "and often the stripped, a brief record of fact and sensation, is drained of voice."