Monday, April 10, 2017
The Box Under the Bed
Haunting tales and tidbits pulled from under the bed. These compelling little poems and stories explore the dark side of the human psyche and the ghostly side of life.
Monday, March 27, 2017
I just finished reading Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery. Yes, I know. Many of you read this when you were in junior high, but for some reason the Catholic School I went to didn't think this was appropriate reading, so I never had the advantage of all that dissecting that was offered in sixth grade English class. I know what happens in the end--and here's the spoiler--every year a random lottery "winner" had to be stoned to death by the entire community in the town square. But what I don't know is why? Furthermore, I don't know why Shirley Jackson wouldn't fill us in on that. I mean, isn't the motive an essential part of the story?
I've read some analysis on this, but not of it makes sense, as it seems to all be speculative. Even Shirley Jackson had trouble explaining her intentions. Responding to complaints, she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1948, "Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult."
Even the scholars who translated the meaning had to decipher code throughout the story to come up with an explanation. I understand why the story is revered, as its shock value alone is worthwhile. But as a writer and a reader, I am always disappointed in stories that end on a speculative note. Simply put, I as the reader don't want to have to do the work of the writer. I would love to know what you think.
Thursday, December 31, 2015
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Such is the life of a writer. But then we have a moment when something does happen. The words do come. The sentences form. Paragraphs grow. A scene is created. A chapter. A first draft.
We revise. Rewrite. Revisit. Show it to an agent. Get rejected. Revise. Rewrite. Revisit. Show it to another agent. Get rejected. Repeat.
I'm just here to tell you, it's okay. Stock up on the jello and ramen noodles. Stare out the window. Put down a word. Delete and repeat. Don't give up. I mean, what else are you going to do? Watch Law & Order marathons? Spend half a day going through Facebook feeds, wondering how that meme about the drunk friends is really so funny it makes Janet from telemarketing cry, as the emoticon suggests?
Being a writer can be a lonely business. Until the characters develop. Until the story evolves. Until our minds are so full of souls whom we've created we can barely move. We stop craving the wilted celery and processed cheese spread and rejoice in the company or our characters. That's why we write.
Get a coffee mug, a pin, a desk mat that has printed on it the adage "A successful writer is just an amateur who didn't give up." Every time you think it's not worth it, let your eyes fall on that cliche and get back to work.
That's what I've got for today. I would love to read your comments.
by Eileen Albrizio
When the new day comes,
reward yourself with words,
invent fantastic worlds,
travel to phantom places,
embrace all that seems impossible,
rejoice in who you are.
~ From The Box Under the Bed
Monday, December 14, 2015
Perhaps the biggest problem for poets trying to write a great poem is that the poet doesn't really know what poetry is. How do you distinguish between writing a poem or writing a piece of flash fiction. One of the characteristics most significant in defining poetry is its inability to be defined. But if we can't define it, how can we write it?
What makes poetry different from prose literature can be found in its concise language. It uses a heightened, yet more economic vocabulary. Other characteristics of poetry are its use of literary devices such as meter, rhyme, repetition, alliteration, metaphor, simile, assonance, line and stanza breaks and formal structure. If you are writing FREE VERSE, don’t ignore the fundamental techniques that make poetry substantial.
Most importantly, every poem must have an emotional heart. Even within haiku and its observations of nature, the poet delivers an emotional experience through what she's witnessed.
Perhaps intellectually you understand the fundamentals of what makes a poem a poem.. So, what is keeping you from writing great poetry? The biggest obstacle that keeps us from writing a great poem is FEAR
* Whether we've defined poetry or not, we’re afraid we’ll get it wrong.
* We fear we’re not good enough writers to write one.
* We fear what we want to write about isn’t that interesting.
* We fear what we want to write about is too personal.
* We fear we will be judged by our peers.
* Because poems are personal, we fear we will hurt someone’s feelings.
* The desire to be published creates a fear of writing a poem unworthy of being published.
* We fear we will never get to the point of perfection, so we just don't do it.
* We get intimidated by people who say the words just spill out of them, that poetry comes to them like a muse in the night, that they just wait for the perfect time and the poem comes. We know that doesn't happen for us, so we fear we are not true poets.
How do we break through the fear and write a poem:
* Be active readers of poetry. Pay attention to the way words work together, or don't work together. It is not only important to read poets that speak to you, but also to read poets who you find out of reach or who challenge you.
* Think of creative writing as traveling without a map, or driving a car at night. These metaphors illustrate that writing is seldom a linear process with a known destination. Instead, it involves learning to love language—its tastes and shapes and sounds—and then to go wherever the writing leads. NOTE: If you do this, it’s just the first step. Once you get to your destination, then go back and revisit the poem and think creatively about what it says and what you want it to say.
* Practice writing often, as you would if learning to play the piano or shooting free throws. Instead of expecting a "great" poem every time you write, write in a way that feels "raw and messy."
* Find the emotional core of the poem and connect it to concrete objects: something that can be seen, touched, heard, smelled and tasted by readers and listeners. Every time we feel something, it has a tangible connection. Find that connection and work with it.
* Don't get bogged down in the facts. The only significant truth in a poem is its emotional truth. Don't be afraid to blur the facts in order to get to the heart of the TRUE EMOTION.
* Write without fear. It won't be great when you first throw it down. It will be like the clay on the potter's wheel--a shapeless mass of brown, wet, glop. Get that glop on the wheel. No one will see it but you!
* Once you write, you must revise. Genius comes in the editing. In the revising, don't be afraid to throw away that first line that sparked the poem in the first place. Often that line isn't worthy of the poem, it's just the inspiration. Be your toughest critic. Just as you would write without fear, you must edit without mercy.
Bottom line: The best way to be confident as a poet and write a great poem is to:
1. Read poetry. Read lots and lots of poetry from a variety of poets. Not just today's poets either. Read yesterday's poets. You don't have to like all of it, but you do have to read it.
2. Write poetry. Write lots and lots of poetry in a variety of forms. Copy the forms of today's poets. Copy the forms of yesterday's poets. You don't have to like all the forms in which you write, but you do have to write them.
3. Always remember, you are not alone. All great writers have a fear of writing something great. It's persistence and an unrelenting desire to write that makes us successful.
by Eileen Albrizio
I write, but what I’ve written isn’t right.
Rewrite, but it comes out wrong.
You say don’t stop. Keep writing.
With sound advice and insight,
I go back to the start and be strong
and write again, but it just isn’t right.
Maybe all it needs is a slight
tweaking to help it along.
You say no, it needs more. Keep writing.
New eyes on the lines to shine light
on what might turn what I wrote into song,
but what I’ve written still isn’t right.
An edit won’t make it tight
if the words aren’t where they belong.
You agree and say keep on writing.
I’m not good enough for this fight.
Can’t stop crying when I think of how long
it took me to write what’s not right.
You say I’m awesome because I keep writing.
~ From The Box Under the Bed, available on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.
The Box Under the Bed
I would love to read your feedback. Drop me a comment!
Monday, January 5, 2015
by Eileen Albrizio
(A short-short story from The Box Under the Bed)
She was driving, making up time on the Mass Pike. They were heading to her parents’ house in Newton—maybe it was Shrewsbury. She was chattering on about something. He tuned her out. Or he was at the wheel, laughing at her jokes, playing with the radio. They were going to his sister’s in Bedford. The children were bickering in the back seat. A boy, ten, and a girl, twelve. Their SUV had a TV in the rear. The son, possibly older, had an iPad, was playing video games. The younger daughter quietly watched a movie. Might have been they weren’t rich, didn’t have the trappings. So they bided their time singing medleys the way families did before satellite radio.
Oh my Darling, Oh my Darling, Oh my Darling Clementine—I want a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad.
Perhaps it was just the two of them, only wed a year. He had a few drinks before hitting the road. She told him not to drive. He said he was fine. They were arguing when he changed lanes. He was yelling at her when he swerved. Could have been they weren’t arguing, but enjoying the ride as she drove on that crisp, clear afternoon. It was another driver, drunk, who clipped them while passing. Sent their SUV off the road. She overcompensated, struck the guardrail. The SUV went airborne. And there were children, and they were screaming when it hit the ground, flipped again. Crashed and burst into flames. The children were trapped. Parents unconscious. Pray there were no children. They were staying at their grandparents. It was conceivable the children were only a plan—for someday.
Fireman put out the blaze. Pulled the man and woman from the vehicle. Their clothes were smoldering. EMTs cut off their pants, pulled off their shoes. Laid their bodies on the median. No hurry putting them in the ambulance. A white sheet draped over their heads, down to their thighs.
We drove past them on that Christmas day. You said, Don’t look. I looked. Saw the burnt-out vehicle on its head. And the bodies on the ground. Dear God. What went wrong to stretch those bare white legs out onto the cold, dead earth?
The Box Under the Bed - Available at Amazon.com
The Box Under the Bed - Available at B&N.com
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Interview on "Possibiliteas: Master-Brew for Creative Minds"
Authors and other creative people, research blogs on the Internet that focus on your talent. If you have a product or service that makes you interesting as a creative person, these bloggers may want to interview you! It's a great way to get the word out to a broad audience.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
You've written a manuscript and now you want to sell it. You don't want to self-publish, as that requires too much money up front and an intensely difficult marketing campaign afterward. Publishing through the conventional avenues means getting a literary agent, as no major publishing house these days will accept unsolicited manuscripts.
You've labored tirelessly over writing the perfect query, did your research online and through various Writer's Market volumes, and sent out your query to dozens, and for some, hundreds of agents. Most responses come back as a rejection form letter. The rest don't bother to respond at all.
Why? Don't they want fresh new talent? Other people get agents, so you ask yourself, "What am I doing wrong?" The answer: Nothing. The problem: Agents receive hundreds of queries every day, and unless yours is so out-of-this-world fantastic in the very first line, they will likely throw it in the discard basket and tell their intern to send you a form rejection. Some do take the time to read the whole query, but again, if it's not stellar, in the basket it goes. If you are exceptionally lucky, the agent will write you a short personalized note letting you know why your manuscript was rejected. That's a good thing, because then you can revisit the manuscript and make improvements.
The bottom line, however, is you've been rejected. What do you do?
You get out from behind your desk and go meet the agent face to face. That does NOT mean you drive to the agent's office and walk in with your manuscript, plop it on her desk and ask her to take a look. (If anyone has ever read John Irving's The World According to Garp, that's what Garp's mother did with much success. Remember, that was fiction. This is reality.)
The best way for you to meet an agent is to check around your area for writers' conferences. Many areas hold writers' conferences that are within a reasonable driving distance from where you live. See if those conferences offer a "meet-and-greet" segment with a literary agent. Some conferences charge a little more to take part in that. But some don't. If there is a conference that does offer such a segment that doesn't charge extra, sign up, follow the rules, and go. If there are only conferences that offer such a segment at an additional charge, I still recommend you go, but those have pros and cons. The pros are you will get honest, priceless, professional feedback that will only improve your manuscript, and you may actually get interest from an agent. The cons are, some of these agents may not be as interested in picking up new talent as they are in getting paid to do the conference.
Either way, the advantages are numerous.
1.) You are showing the agent you are active in the literary community by actually going out and attending conferences in order to improve your craft and advance your writing career.
2.) You are attending workshops that will actually help you grow as a writer. You will not only get creative writing tips, but tips on how to publish and promote your book.
3.) You will make a more lasting impression on the agent by meeting them in person and talking with them. That is something that isn't possible by simply sending out a query letter.
4.) You are getting critical advice on how to improve the manuscript. They know the market. They know what works and what doesn't. They read hundreds upon hundreds of manuscripts. They are not just giving you an opinion. They are telling you exactly what you need to do to get published. It may sound like a rejection, but it's not. It's a postponement. Once they tell you what needs to be done, do it! Which leads me to the next benefit.
5.) Once you make the suggested improvements, these agents are more likely to revisit the revised manuscript. That is not something an agent who rejected you letter query will likely do.
6.) If the agent rejects your revised manuscript, she will more often than not give you further advice on how to improve it, and she may keep the door open for you to resubmit.
At the end of the experience, the agent may sign you on, she may not. If she doesn't find, out why. She would have invested enough time with you at that point to be honest. The reason may simply be she thought she had a place for it but discovered she didn't. That will allow you to market it to another agent with more confidence.
It may sound daunting, but this method does work more effectively than sending out letter or email queries. And a wonderful benefit is, you have improved your manuscript in a way you never would have been able to otherwise. So, if you do decide to go the self-publishing route, you will have a much better product.
I hope this helps you. The best advice I can give you is don't get discouraged, keep writing, keep revising, take the advice of these professionals gracefully, and never, ever give up. It takes time. But it's time worth taking.
Monday, November 17, 2014
I would first like to give you an update on The Box Under the Bed, my new collection of haunting short stories and dark poetry. It is available on Amazon.com and now also available on Barnesandnoble.com. For a sneak peak, go to Amazon.com. To view my cool new video, just click the button below!
Secondly, this weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to share some of the poems from this collection with my fellow poets, Mary Elizabeth Lang and Suzanne Niedzielska. We were at a charming Tea House in Bristol, CT called The Artist Tree. The walls were covered with paintings from local artists, and the tea was delicious.
Sharing this news with you brings me to an important point. Reading at local venues is a valuable way to get the word out about your work. It gives you opportunities to advertise not only the event itself, but to advertise the work from which you will be reading. Facebook and Twitter are great social sites to spread the word. Reading at local venues also brings in a new audience. People who frequent the Artist Tree Tea House were not my social connections, but now they are!
If you have print books, always choose selections from those so you are holding the book in your hand for the audience to see. If you have only an eBook, create a business card, as I show above. Hand that card out to everyone in the audience and let them know they can get a sneak peak of your book on Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, or any other place where they can access it. That brings them to the site and one step closer to purchasing your book.
Lastly, if you want me to discuss certain aspects of writing or reading on this blog, drop me a note. I would love to hear from you.
Have a great day and keep embracing the written word in whatever fashion you choose!
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
In the meantime, I have a new book of short stories and dark poetry, which is available on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. It's called The Box Under the Bed and it's filled with haunting tales and tidbits pulled from under the bed that are sure to steal your breath and chill your blood right before you sleep. These compelling little poems and stories explore the dark side of the human psyche and the ghostly side of death.
This is an eBook, and you can download it to your Kindle or Nook device.
The Box Under the Bed on Amazon.com
The Box Under the Bed on Barnesandnoble.com
If you do not have a Kindle device, you can download a FREE app to be used on your computer, tablet, or phone. Here's the link:
Download Your Free Kindle app
Check out a FREE preview of the book on Amazon.com. (Barnes and Noble offers a free preview as well, but the Amazon preview is more extensive.) If you like what you read, the book is only $3.99! I would also love it if you would write a brief review of the book, whether it be on Amazon.com or on Barnesandnoble.com, as reviews help give the book greater search presence. A five-star review is a wonderful way to promote a book on these sites, and as an author, promotion of a book is exceptionally cumbersome, so every little bit helps!
Thank you for following me through my various projects. Please leave a comment, and if you have a book, I encourage you to promote it here!
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Acceptable. An odd concept for the creative mind. As artists, do we really want to attach ourselves to what’s acceptable or do we want to expand the boundaries of acceptability, even break through them, and create something completely unique. That’s what Herman Melville did when he wrote Moby Dick. In trying to understand the process of creativity, I took a closer look at Melville’s process of creating.
The now classic author and one of the founding authors of the American literary canon began his career garnering modest success with short novels known as travel logs. They were exotic tales that followed the adventures of some sort of sailor who either traveled to or got stranded on a far away island. The average income reader of the mid 19th century had little opportunity to travel, so they would live vicariously through these travel tales of adventure. When Melville was deciding to write what would become Moby Dick, he was embarking on yet another travel log. When nearly finished with this latest book, his friend and contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, encouraged him to change it. His reason was he recognized Melville’s potential to break down the barriers of the acceptable and create something unique, something that went beyond a step-by-step account of a traveler and delved into the exploration of the human condition. Trusting his friend, Melville went back to the beginning and completely rewrote what he had originally been called The Whale, a simple tale about a sailor on a whaling ship. When finished, he had created the allegorical masterpiece, Moby Dick. He wrote not only in differing tenses throughout the novel, but in differing perspectives, genres, and switched from “fact,” or what was thought to be fact at the time, to fiction. There’s even a section of the book that’s laid out like a stage play. So, you say, if Melville can do it, and to such an extreme, well, so can I! Well, yes, he did do it, but it was an unadulterated failure! It was panned by readers, critics and the public at large. It was such a disaster, it made the sinking of the Pequod a metaphor for his career. His public expected one thing and got another, and they weren’t happy about it. Although he continued to write, he never recovered from the failure of Moby Dick, and instead of making a living as a writer, as he did with his travel logs, he ended up working for the New York Port Authority and when Herman Melville died, the one and only obituary notice in New York spelled his name wrong. True story!
Sure, we’re glad now Melville ruined his career to create his magnum opus, but I’m not certain he was so thrilled about it. He would never know the success of Moby Dick. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that scholars decided to take another look at Moby Dick and with a new more “contemporary” eye, found its brilliance. Unfortunately, Melville died in 1891.
So, what’s the moral of the story? That’s what I pondered for over a week before making my decision and my decision ultimately rested in the answer to this next question. Am I looking for monetary success with this novel, or literary success? Well, both would be nice, but if I had to choose, I would most certainly choose literary success. I’m not being lofty and I can prove it. I’ve been writing for 35 years and I still keep my day job!
Keeping in mind the literary value of the work, I reasoned that using past tense for the ghosts could be effective in defining them as characters of the past, living lives that have already happened. When the reader gets to the protagonist’s present situation and the tense switches over to the present, it could make the action more exciting. To tackle this, however, would take tremendous effort, and that effort would likely be felt in the writing.
To analyze my dilemma further, I decided to think logically instead of creatively. We think in past tense. Our thoughts are reflective. Logically, a novel is most effective when it reads like we think. To force the reader to alter the way he or she thinks would be cumbersome. Do I really want to alter the way a reader thinks when going from page to page through my entire novel? Will the reader be willing to do that? Unlikely. If the act of reading becomes cumbersome, then the words are lost to the style. Style takes precedence over content. In Melville’s situation, his novel was all about style. That was the point, and that’s what makes it work. The novel wasn’t necessarily about a specific plot. Yes, there was a definite plot, several actually, but the main point of the creation was to explore the human condition.
Is that what I am writing, a grand exploration of humanity? NO! I’m writing a fiction story about ghosts. Hardly the place to go crashing down the gates and driving over the well-manicured lawns of acceptable writing styles. I want the reader to focus on the story, not the style of writing. It is the plot of the story that is important, and there is only one tried and true way to get the reader engrossed in the plot, and that’s to write in a style in which they are familiar. But what about the perspective? Should I write Mercy Amoretto’s chapters in the first person while keeping the ghosts in the past?
Well, having blocked out my chapters already, I know that as the novel progresses, most of the chapters become Mercy Amoretto chapters. Therefore, I would essentially be writing the entire second half of the novel in first person perspective. That could be limiting, considering there are other characters at play: her husband, Donovan, and her three children, not to mention her best friend Mary Beth. I would have to relate everything that is happening through the perspective of Mercy. Would that be effective? I think not, mostly because the scary parts of a ghost story often happen when the reader sees something that the main character does not. The scope would be too narrow, less three-dimensional. Plus, switching back and forth would, again, force the reader to change his or her way of thinking throughout the novel. Getting settled into one tense, just to be thrown out and into another one. It could be quite painful, intellectually speaking, and I don’t think I want to torture my reader.
Giving it one final thought, I asked myself, does it really make the novel better to change from the traditional style of writing to something considered unacceptable? The answer again was an unequivocal no!
So, third person past tense it is, all the way through. I’m not caving to convention, ladies and gentlemen. I am simply writing the best novel I can possibly write at this point in my life. If this particular piece works best in the traditional style, then that’s what works best. Period. There’s no need to mess with what works!
Thanks for following along the process. I will come back shortly with my next update on my progress. Until then, happy writing!
Friday, December 4, 2009
I have now officially begun writing my novel, The Rope, the Tire, and the Tree. After completing the lengthy, yet necessary prep work (refer to my previous post for the details on that), I have written the first pages of my novel.
I already blocked out my chapters, so I already had an idea in mind of how to open the novel. However, once I wrote the first lines of my first chapter, I realized this was not how I wanted to begin the story at all. It just didn’t feel right, and if it doesn’t feel right to the writer, then it won’t feel right to the reader! I did a little research, a lot of pacing, and a whole lot of thinking until I finally realized the problem.
When we think about a story, we think of a series of events that starts here, then goes there, and ends someplace else. So, when we start to write a novel, we often feel a need to begin at the beginning, at that place where the story starts, and that’s exactly what I did. So, why didn’t it work? It didn’t work because, * gulp *, it was boring. In my first post of this blog titled "Taking the Labor Out of Starting a Story," I talk about this very problem, so I am surprised that I didn’t follow my own advice when blocking out my chapters in the first place. However, I quickly, and thankfully, recognized the error of my ways.
Think about it for a moment. What happens at the beginning of things? Not much. A person or a group of people are sitting or standing around doing mostly mundane things and it isn’t until that extraordinary something happens that the action starts. Why do we feel the need to start with the mundane and work our way into the action? The answer is, we shouldn’t feel that way. If we don’t start at the beginning, then where do we start our story? Answer number two; en medias res, in the middle of things. More specifically, in the middle of the action. The opening lines of your story should directly connect with the core or your plot.
Using the examples from my first post, if you are writing about a college football player who dreams of being a pro, then start the story on the football field. If your story is about a town threatened by deadly forces from outer space, then begin the story with a spacecraft crash landing in the middle of a Midwestern town. If the plot of your novel circles around finding a serial killer who preys on college women with long dark hair, then open your novel with the murder of one of these women. From there you can either flashback or move forward. It’s up to you. Notice that in each example your story is opening with an action. It isn’t a student sitting at his desk in World Geography class dreaming about being a football player, or a Midwestern family gathered around the dinner table in prayer not anticipating any kind of danger to their existence, or the young woman primping to go out for the night hoping someone will buy her a drink. That all may have a place later, but right at the start, jump into the action!
I’m writing a ghost story. So, why did I start the story with the woman who will later be haunted oblivious to that later development and living her somewhat troubled, yet otherwise boring life? I DON’T KNOW!!! After I realized my error by boring myself with my own writing, I knocked myself in the head with my knuckles a few times and started over. And where did I start the second time? With the ghosts, of course! Already dead things in a less than dead space doing spooky ghostly things. Which brings me to another point. Your opening lines, paragraphs, pages and chapter at large, must set the tone for the entire novel. If you are writing a comedy, don’t open the book with a graphic death scene. If you are writing a literary drama, don’t open with Three Stooges slapstick or talking puppies. I’m writing a spooky ghost story, so I open with spooky ghosts.
Another problem solved. I will keep you posted on my progress and obstacles, so stay tuned. Until then, happy writing!
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
I finished all of the pre-writing for my new novel, The Rope, the Tire, and the Tree, and now I am finally embarking on the actual writing of the story. If you have been following my blog, you know what that preparatory work entailed. For a bit of reinforcement, I will briefly recap.
The first, and arguably hardest part of beginning a novel is coming up with an interesting and unique story. In my case, I was pondering an idea for a short story for my compilation of short fiction. The genre of the compilation is supernatural fiction, so I was trying to think of an interesting tale to write that had a supernatural twist. I had completed about six short stories and several poems for the volume, but when thinking of a new story to tackle, I found myself simply rehashing old themes. I was literally starting from scratch. I had to make something out of nothing. For many of us in this position, that seems like an impossible task. What I did to conquer that obstacle was surprisingly simple. Instead of asking myself what story do I want to write, I asked myself what story do I want to READ. Well, I know what I want to read. I want to read a story that has a sympathetic, yet, terribly flawed main character. The flawed heroes are always the most fun and the most relatable. I don’t want gore, but something dramatically supernatural and fundamentally frightening without overwhelming me with horror. I want to explore the “lives” of the supernatural forces and get to know them on an intimate level, just as does the protagonist. I want something classic in nature placed in contemporary times.
As I do with my poetry, I took these somewhat abstract ideas and I tried to find an image to make them concrete. I wanted something I could see. If I can see it, I can write about it. If you’ve ever taken my creative writing workshops, you know that working with concrete imagery is fundamental to great writing. I found the image lingering in the back of my mind. It came from a poem I wrote called An Accidental Meeting that is published in my first volume of poetry. In the poem, I describe an old tire swing. Bingo! That was the image, classic, yet easy to fit into contemporary times. And, of course, I had to attach the supernatural element to that tire swing. Thus, the germ of my story was born.
Next, I developed a plot sentence. What is a plot sentence? Some have called it a cocktail party description. That is what you would say if a friend came up to you at a cocktail party and asked what your story was about. You need one maybe two sentences tops that briefly, precisely, and compellingly explains the main protagonist of your story, her conflict and how the antagonist prevents her from overcoming that conflict; in other words, the plot of your story. So, I had the image of the tire swing and the general idea of the story, now I needed to incorporate a character in order to develop the plot. I picked a main character with whom I could easily connect, a woman in her forties. Well, that’s me. I, however, am rather boring, so, I started with me and expanded outward. I developed a crisis or conflict for the woman, placed her in a situation where that conflict appeared insurmountable, and then entangled into that conflict the supernatural element (antagonists, if you will), which would ultimately bring the story to its climax.
I didn’t want the tire swing itself to be supernatural, but rather to harbor something supernatural, that is, the spirits of lives past. I also didn’t want the spirits to be pure evil, as that would create distance between them and the reader. So, I made the spirits into characters, real people who lived, then died and found themselves trapped in the properties of the tire swing. They are restless, confused, and in need of home. I wanted more than one spirit, because there is power in numbers, but not too many for fear of convoluting the story. Two spirits coming together in one tire swing and a protagonist faced with a crisis that is exacerbated and blown into the stratosphere by the manifestation of these spirits. Aha! A plot sentence is born.
“Mercy Amoretto, in an attempt to mend her nearly destroyed family, decides to clean out the garbage of her life and in doing so discovers an old rope and tire and fashions them together to create a tire swing that she hangs from a maple tree in her back yard only to discover that the connection of the rope, the tire and the tree has released the restless spirits of lives past, spirits that if not cared for, could bring Mercy and her family to eternal ruin.”
OK. That’s a long sentence. I could break it into two, but that’s it in a nutshell, my plot sentence, my cocktail party description of my story. In thinking about my plot, my protagonist and the two spirits, I realized that this was much bigger than a short story. There was a novel here, and so with the birth of my plot sentence came the growth of my novel.
From here, I began developing my characters. I will not go into detail because I have already done that in an earlier blog. But, essentially, I interview my characters by asking them a series of about twenty questions, then I take the answers to those questions and write a page or two narrative. By narrative, I mean I write a “chapter” that essentially describes each character, interweaving each answer into that chapter. For example, instead of simply saying Anastasia is eight years old with blue eyes and blond hair, characteristics that are in my list of answers, I write her description into a narrative. Here is the beginning of that narrative. The numbers represent each of the answers in my questionnaire, and notice I don’t necessarily write the answers into my narrative in the order the questions were asked.
“It’s 1970(4) and eight-year-old(2) Anastasia Madison(1) was riding in the way back of her parent’s 1967 Chevy Chevelle station wagon. There was no seat in the back, just a blanket covering a cold metal floor. Anastasia sat cross-legged facing the rear window daydreaming. The air that swirled through the partially opened window tangled through her long, sleek blond(3) hair, lifting it to fly like the tails of kites behind her.”
By doing this, I am developing Anastasia into a three-dimensional character before I even start writing the novel. I develop a relationship with her. I am thinking about her creatively, not just analytically. Again, I teach this in my creative writing workshops. It’s a fun and invigorating exercise!
Next, I drafted the ending to my story. Yes, the ending. Don’t think your story will tell you where to go as you write it, because it won’t. If you do not have an ending before you start writing, you risk rambling down dozens of digressive dirt roads until you find yourself standing over a massive precipice in where the only way to go is straight down! Figure out where you want to go before you start writing. You can change your mind later, but it’s always best to write knowing your destination! Draft the ending like you draft your plot sentence. WRITE IT DOWN!
Next, I blocked out my chapters. I took index cards and dedicated one index card to each chapter. I started, of course, at the beginning, and one-by-one, I found the heart of each chapter as well as the movement of the story. I asked myself, where do I want to go from here, and then I blocked that out chapter-by-chapter until I reached my already drafted conclusion. The exciting part of this is that I discovered by the time I reached chapter ten that I needed to introduce a new character. I needed a bridge character, someone who would serve to take the main character from here to there in a more realistic and interesting way than what I had originally drafted out. Because I have the chapters on index cards, I simply went to chapter one and wrote down the new character’s introduction on the back of the card. Then at about chapter 15 I realized I needed a stronger connection between Mercy and the spirits, a connection that stemmed from some intimate and devastating occurrence in Mercy’s life that makes her susceptible to the spirits’ influence. So, I introduced some foreshadowing and a subplot on the chapter three index card. THEN, when I reached the climax, I realized I needed a more dimensional and dramatic climax than I had drawn up in my original conclusion. So, I expanded the climax to include this added drama, and incorporated that into the draft of the conclusion I had written earlier. Consider the amount of labor I am avoiding by taking care of all of this now. If I just started writing without any preparatory work, any pre-write, and had written ten whole chapters before realizing I had to go back and introduce a whole new character in chapter one, then I would have to go through the entire ten chapters and make sure that character was accurately and flawlessly incorporated in order for the plot to move smoothly. That is an enormous rewrite that we avoided by doing all of this preliminary drafting and blocking. AMAZING!!
Now here I am. I have my plot, an in depth understanding of my characters, all of my chapters blocked out and my ending drafted. Imagine, having all of this work already done before you even write the first word of your novel! I don’t have to worry about facing that horrible, ugly monster called writer’s block. The hardest of the hard work is over. All of that anticipated badness is alleviated. I no longer have to ask, “Can I do this?” because I’ve already done it. Now I just have to write the story. And that’s the fun part, right??
So, I am at that wonderful point of writing the first line of the first chapter of my novel. I don’t want to overwhelm you, so I will go into detail about that in my next blog.
Until then, happy writing and happy Thanksgiving!!
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I apologize for not updating my progress in writing my new novel, The Rope, the Tire and the Tree. The reason for the delay is I didn't make any progress! Had a minor setback that delayed the writing process for DAYS! If you've read my previous post, you know that I was working on blocking out my chapters on index cards. Well, I got twelve chapters blocked out, then I misplaced my index cards. I highly recommend you do not do this! I searched my home, my car, my little comic book store. I called my mom to see if I left them at her house, I emailed friends and co-workers to see if they'd seen them, all to no avail. I considered just starting over and reblocking them again from chapter one, but the task seemed so daunting that I just didn't do it. I knew that I had come up with some wonderful ideas and blocking strategies, and I feared I wouldn't be able to replicate it. Just when I was about to give up and start from scratch, I found them. Five days later, I discovered them tucked neatly away in a box for a manuscript that I had completed editing and was preparing to bring to my client. I opened the box to make sure the pages were in order and, lo and behold, there they were. That's when I remembered putting them in there so I wouldn't misplace them!! Oh, the irony!
So, I am now finishing blocking out my chapters, and I was right, there were ideas jotted down that I don't think I would have been able to draw up again. But, I have to say, it is possible that I could have reblocked the chapters and gone in a better direction than where I was headed. I have done that before. When I was in the beginning stages of writing my one-act play, Rain in 1996, I was working on a clunker of a computer that kept crashing. I tried to back up everything as I went, but I found myself one day on such a fantastic run that I neglected to back up what I had written in a timely manner, and the computer, of course, crashed. I cried for about two solid hours. Then, the next day I went to work rewriting. My mind had cleared and I was determined to write as if nothing had happened. As a result, I believe what I wrote was far superior than what I had drafted the day before. Subsequently, the play was acknowledged by Writer's Digest in 1997 as one of the top twenty best written plays, and it was later published in my second book, Rain - Dark as Water in Winter.
I suppose the moral of this story is, it is important to have a system that is organized and efficient in order for the writing process to go smoothly. However, we are mere human beings, and mishaps will happen. When they do, don't let it stop you as it did me. It would probably have been a good exercise to begin reblocking the chapters even with the hope that I would come across the index cards eventually. When I did find them, I could have compared notes between the two, and I probably would have discovered some interesting gems from the new endeavor that I could have added to the original version. I do believe my frustration over misplacing my index cards delayed the creative process and I did myself a grave disservice but stopping in my tracks. Leason learned!
Onward and upward! It shouldn't take me long now to finish blocking out my chapters. Once I am done, I will move on to actually writing the first lines of the first chapter of my novel. Thank you for your patience everyone. I'll be back soon. Until then, happy writing!
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
At this point in writing my new novel, The Rope, the Tire and the Tree, I have written my plot sentence, named and outlined my main characters and drafted my ending. Now I want to block out my chapters. Just like everything else in writing, not all writers do this. Some have a plot and characters, a beginning and an end, and then they fill in the rest as they go. I like to block out my chapters in advance for the same reason I draft my ending before I start writing the story; it gives me a path on which to travel. Certainly I will stray from that path from time to time, or even decidedly hop on to a new path all together, but having a direction in which to go makes the process not only easier, but in my humble opinion, much more fun!
I begin blocking my chapters by getting a box of index cards. Each card represents a single chapter. In the case of this story, I have a box of multicolored index cards. Because my three main characters are each from a different time period, I assign each character a color so at a glance I know on which character I am focusing. All of the characters will connect at some point, but in the beginning of the novel they are separate. When they come together, I will assign a different color card to denote that they are written together within one chapter.
Because I am working with three distinct main characters, I must be very careful not to overwork one character or chapter at the sake of another. Likewise, I must not jump around from each character too frenetically, potentially making the reader dizzy. I need to create an even flow between the chapters, connecting them on a literary level even before they come together. This is where my poetic skills come in handy. I make mention of the importance of understanding poetry writing at the end of my blog post titled "Taking the Labor Out of Starting a Story." I also teach this in my creative writing workshops. A poem is an immediate experience, filled with rich imagery and tangible emotion. Each word is precisely chosen to fullfill the essence of the poem. That is what I need to concentrate on when connecting the characters from chapter to chapter. Through carefully chosen language and narrative I want to create a sense of the presence of the characters in each chapter without always placing them there. For example, while in the midst of a game of hide and seek with her brother, Anastasia hides high in the branches of an old maple tree in her back yard. In her seclusion, her mind wanders and she daydreams of a young boy shining shoes on the streets of New York a century ago. She doesn't know how the daydream was inspired, but finds it intriguing. Two chapters later, young Walker Jacobs is sitting under a maple tree reading Ragged Dick, a Horatio Alger tale of a young shoeshine boy working the streets of New York in the 1860s. The two young people, Anastasia and Wallker, living a half century apart, share a connection with the tree and the book but have yet to realize it.
Now, I haven't actually written that scene yet, but I made note on the index card of Anna hiding among the branches with the image of Ragged Dick in her head. I know from this brief description where I want to go with it, and it will serve to point me in that direction when I get to physically writing chapter seven.
The above example is the exact reason for blocking out the chapters on index cards. As we write we come up with wonderful ideas about what we want to write about later in the novel, but we have a ways to go before we get there. We take a terrible risk of losing that nugget if we don't block it out now. So, I jot down on each index card an outline of the main arc of each chapter. What is it that I want to happen here? What is the main focus, plot movement, obstacle, etc. of this chapter? If I can answer that now, then my job becomes immensely easier later on. Also, by blocking the chapters on index cards, I can review them and move them around. What works in succession now, may not work as well in that order as I get deeper into the writing process. I can tape the cards around the computer so I can see where I've been and where I'm going, or keep them in a neat stack and go through them one by one. It depends on where I am in the writing process that day.
I hope this was helpful. When I finish blocking my chapters I will come back to you with more insight into this wonderful endeavor. Until then, happy writing!
Monday, October 12, 2009
I am moving forward with the next step of outlining my new novel. First, however, I just want to comment on the naming of one of my characters. A dear friend and wonderful writer, Priscilla, pointed out to me that Walker's last name, Conrad, rang reminiscent of Joseph Conrad the author of HEART OF DARKNESS. I hadn't thought of that, and was quite grateful for the insight. I definitely do not want readers associating Walker with Joseph Conrad. That's akin to having him named after Thomas Nelson Page! She also pointed out that Jacobs as a last name for Walker was not only appropriate on an ethnic level, but also on a character level. It sounded perfect to her, as it initially did for me. I had changed it thinking of the name in a biblical sense and having a strong Jewish relationship. However, she graciously told me that the name crossed ethnic lines and was fitting for black Americans as well. So my young man has returned to being named Walker Jacobs. I'm glad and so is Walker :)
So, moving ahead. I have my plot sentence and my characters named and outlined. Now I want to draft my ending. Yes, that's right. Before I even start writing my story, I must outline the ending. Writers approach a novel in different ways. Some do as I am doing and outline everything before we begin. Others begin and let the story "tell" them where to go. There is no right approach, although from experience, I can say not knowing where the story is going to lead often makes for frustrating writing sessions and even that horrible little devil, writer's block! Having an ending before I begin gives me somewhere to go. That doesn't mean I won't change the ending if the novel leads me in another direction, but, trust me, it works to have it outlined in advance.
I remember reading a horror novel by one of my favorite authors and anticipating a great conclusion only to have it end with a giant spider. Sounds creepy, but it was really anticlimactic. I felt in my gut that the ending came because he couldn't figure any other way out. No one wants their readers to feel that way, especially when you have invested so much sweat, time and tears into your project.
So, I am off to outline my ending, which, of course, I am NOT going to post here! I shall return when I reach the next phase of writing my novel. Until then, happy writing!
Sunday, October 11, 2009
In drafting my plot sentence for my new novel, The Rope, the Tire and the Tree, I realized that my three main characters were inappropriately named. Writers give their characters names for many reasons. Sometimes they are named after real people they've known who possess the ideology of their characters. Sometimes they are given names that hold actual meaning to the characters' personalities. Sometimes they are given names simply because they sound good.
When I originally named my characters, Walker Abbey, Karen Madison, and Felicia "Filly" Orlando, I did so by combining all of the above reasons. But, I didn't feel entirely comfortable with any of their names overall. I chose the names too quickly. So, I asked myself the question, "How important are the names of not only the main characters, but all the characters in my story?" The answer was simple and came swiftly. Vitally important!
In a novel, or any fiction piece, there is very little time allowed to get the reader "acquainted" with our characters. The reader must have an immediate (desired) response to them, and what is more immediate than your character's name. Additionally, I can't accurately write about my characters if I don't associate with them on the most basic of levels. I needed to create names that held meaning to their personalities, "sounded" good to the inner ear, and made an immediate impact on the reader.
I started with Walker Abbey, a black teenager living in 1925's rural Connecticut. His first name was chosen because the character is a mover in his mind. A self-taught reader, he sees a future out of his life of poverty and oppression. The name Walker gave a sense of movement, of walking toward something and away from something else. I loved the name when I chose it and still do. However, Abbey was simply chosen because I thought it sounded good at the time. It held no meaning, however, and I feel now it is too soft for such a strong character. I changed it to Jacobs, which I liked better. The hard "c" and "b" sounds resounded with his first name. But Jacobs has an intrinsic ethnicity to it that doesn't apply to Walker. Instead of relying purely on sound, I then researched names that meant "strong" and finally found Conrad. It was perfect. Walker Conrad, a strong name for a strong boy eager to move up and out of his life of hardship.
Next, I addressed Karen Madison, an eight-year-old white girl living in what has become the northern Connecticut suburbs in 1970. I wanted her to be an all-American girl; blond, blue-eyed, precocious and adorable. I picked Madison as a last name because it has that Mayflower, all-American feel to it. When we think of the early founders of our country, James Madison, our fourth president, comes to mind. The name also works as a pretty first name for girls, so I liked her having a last name that was reflective of a pretty first name. So, Madison was perfect. Karen, however, I chose by researching popular fist names for girls in the 1960's (when she was born). Karen was a clear winner and also the name of a friend of mine in the 1960's, but after saying the name again and again, it just wasn't beautiful enough. I needed the reader to instantly fall in love with this little girl. She had to grab their hearts. She also has an everlasting quality about her. No matter what happens to her, she will be eternally remembered as that perfect little girl. In my research, I found the name Anastasia. It's a Greek name that means resurrection and springtime. Youthful and eternal, lovely and classic. Called Anna by her brother, which means grace and also is classic in nature, the name embraced everything about this character. So, she is now Anastasia (Anna) Madison.
Felicia "Filly" Orlando, my a current-day wife and mother who is fruitlessly trying to mend her troubled family in comfortable Enfield, CT was my hardest challenge. Her name was wrong on both ends. I wanted her to have a name that wasn't too common but not too abstract. I initially named her Summer Hopewell. The last name was chosen for it's hopeful quality. Even though this woman is partly responsible for the troubles in her family, she is not a bad person and I wanted the reader to be sympathetic to her and see hope in her future. But Hopewell was too obvious and sounded forced. Summer was for the pure sound quality of it and didn't match her personality. I then chose Felicia because it sounded more mature, but I softened it by giving her the nickname "Filly." Orlando was chosen because I decided I wanted her to be married to an Italian man. As someone who was raised in a mixed-Italian/Canadian household, I am very familiar with the tensions and family dynamics of these strong ethnic personalities. I knew I had to relate to this woman on a personal level in order to write about her accurately, so I was certain she should be not Italian herself, but married to an Italian man. But, again, after saying the name out loud a few time, Felicia sounded too mature, and Filly too silly, if you will. And Orlando reminded me too much of Florida or Tony Orlando, so I threw the name away entirely and started over. Third times a charm. After extensive research I decided upon Mercy as a first name; pretty and sympathetic, with a hint of sorrow and just unique enough to be appealing. Amoretto became her last name. It has that wonderful Italian flavor, beginning and ending in a vowel, it's lovely to the ear, and it means "love." Because she is the most central character and the plot centers around the concept of love, the name - Mercy Amoretto - was ideal!
So, there you have it. The long process of naming my three main characters is complete. You may ask, "Is it worth it, taking so much time and energy for just a name?" Absolutely. Will the reader know all the details of the meanings of the names without the lengthy explanation that I provided here? Maybe, maybe not. But even the most subtle or subconscious awareness of their meaning is priceless. Furthermore, as the writer of these characters, I must have an absolute understanding of them from the inside out in order to maintain focus and accurately depict their character traits throughout their creation.
Thank you for reading this blog. I hope it helps you in the process of your own writing. I will return upon completing the next phase of my novel. Until then, happy writing!
Sunday, October 4, 2009
I have completed drafting the character outline for my three main characters in my novel, tentatively titled The Rope, the Tire and the Tree. These are preliminary outlines that I will use as a guide and refer to as I flesh out the characters throughout the writing process. Some or all of the characteristics I've drafted may change throughout the process. That is natural, and even "healthy" as the characters become more three-dimensional. But the outline will serve as a guide in starting the process. As I stated in my earlier blog, I used a formula I found on www.ReviewFuse.com drafted by a man named Jacob. I expanded Jacob's formula by writing my outline in a narrative style, rather than just Q&A. That helped me get a more three dimensional feel for the characters.
Additionally, I have included in this outline the pivotal moment of the characters' lives, or deaths in some cases, that are critical to the plot of the story.
The next step I will take in drafting my novel is to define the plot of the story. I will do that by drafting a "plot sentence." I have discussed the process of writing a plot sentence in an earlier blog titled, "Taking the Labor Out of Starting a Story." In that blog I suggest starting the process with drafting a plot sentence before outlining the characters, but it can work both ways. Sometimes we think of great characters first and want to write a story around them. Other times we think of the conflict or "plot" first and so we develop characters to bring that plot to life.
Although my earlier blog incoroporates other tools in beginning the writing process, I encourage you to review the section that outlines how to go about drafting a plot sentence.
Goodbye for now. I will return when I reach the next stage of drafting my novel. Until then, happy writing!
Thursday, September 24, 2009
I am working on the beginning stages of character development for a new novel I am drafting, tentatively titled THE ROPE, THE TIRE, AND THE TREE. There are three main characters; Walker Abbey, a black teenager living in 1925's rural Connecticut, Karen Madison, an eight-year-old white girl living in what has become the northern Connecticut suburbs in 1970, and Felicia "Filly" Orlando, a current-day wife and mother fruitlessly trying to mend her troubled family in comfortable Enfield, CT.
I am using a formula I found on www.ReviewFuse.com and it was drafted by a man named Jacob. In this formula, Jacob asks us to pose several questions regarding the character. Some of the questions are, "What is your characters eye color, height, weight, favorite color, age, name, hobbies..."
The formula appears on the surface to be rather simple, even rudimentary, but I chose to take a narrative approach to answering these questions and in doing so, found it to be extremely exciting. Instead of just answering "blue, 6 feet, 190 pounds," etc., I wrote out the answers as if I were drafting a chapter in my novel. Limiting my narrative to one page, I was able to get a concise, yet three-dimensional outline of my character that I didn't think possible so early in the process.
I am very comfortable with this approach, and grateful to Jacob for the formula. I will be teaching this formula in detail, along with other elements of creative writing in my upcoming workshop at the Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, CT. Please visit my web site, www.EileenAlbrizio.com for details on the workshop and email me if you would like to register.
As I continue to develop the story, I will let you know what techniques I've learned to make the writing process more exciting and productive. I will also keep you updated on the progress of the story itself. Stay with me as I take you through the various steps of drafting a full-length novel!
If you have questions or would like to post your own insights on fiction writing, please feel free to respond to this blog. I look forward to hearing from you!
Monday, November 10, 2008
Don’t be the author that might have been because starting a story is too cumbersome to master. The blank page (or in modern-day vernacular, the blank computer screen) is your friend, not your enemy. Too often, writers get stuck even before they start, and because getting unstuck seems impossible, the starts never happen. Is this you? It’s been me many times, but I’ve learned a few things in the 30 years that I’ve been writing, and I never get “stuck” anymore. I am going to share with you a few skills and practices that will help you unlock that great story brewing in your mind, and allow you to put to the page those all important opening words, the words that will grab your reader and thrust them into the heart of your story. Notice I said “skills and practices” and not “tricks.” There are no tricks to successful writing. Each author has her own style, her own impetus to write. However there are a few fundamentals that every writer should know and practice BEFORE beginning the writing process. By learning and then following these fundamentals, the process will not only become easier, but far more enjoyable.
Arguably, a writer’s most important practice is to read. Seems rather rudimentary, but it is surprisingly the one thing of which many writers do too little. Reading is, as the axiom goes, fundamental. For the writer, it is nothing less than essential. Perhaps one of the reasons the simple act of reading seems so daunting to writers is that the volume of choices is so astronomically grand. Therefore, the question becomes, “What do I read?”
Many successful authors would answer that question by asking you in return, “What do wish to write?” If you wish to pen mysteries, then you should read mysteries. If your desire is to write historical fiction, then you should read historical fiction. Are children’s stories your style? Then, of course, read children’s stories. Makes sense, and the advice is sound. For whatever genre you are looking to specialize in, you should be an avid reader in that genre. Go to the bookstore in your local mall, or check out Amazon.com and see what the best-selling, best-reviewed books are in your genre. Then read them. Ask your friends, family, co-workers what they are reading, and if they answer they are reading something in the avenue of which you wish to write, then borrow the book.
The advantages of reading are many. First, reading helps the writer define exactly where his passion lies. If you think you would be a great mystery writer, but find reading well-received mystery novels less than pleasurable, then you must ask yourself, “Why do I want to write mysteries if I don’t enjoy reading them?” If the answer is, “Because I think mysteries will sell,” then you are writing for the wrong reasons, and you will likely not become a successful mystery writer. On the other hand, if, while reading your forty-third romance novel, you look up at the clock to discover that it’s three in the morning, and you’ve been reading for six hours and you have to be up at seven, but still can’t put the book down, well, you might be on to something.
Once you determine that you in fact do have a passion for the genre in which you wish to write, then reading serves another purpose. You have already perused a plethora of well-written novels, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Now, reread the ones you loved best, and study the format, the structure, the formula perhaps. Take notes on language and characterization, transition and plotline. Denote the balance between description and dialogue, action and rest. How much time does the author dedicate to the start, rising action, climax and denouement? Are there twists, red herrings, subplots, and subtexts? How many characters are there? How many settings? Etc. Etc.
Another benefit is that in reading you expand your mind. By reading, you open yourself up to experiences that you never thought imaginable. You take in ideas that could not have been perceived without having read a particular book. You expand your language and vocabulary, learn new dialects, patois, and other regionalisms. You discover what works for you in a certain story and what doesn’t. Even the best-written and most notable novels don’t appeal to everyone. Soon, you will find that you can decipher specifically what holds your interest and what slows down your reading. The more you read, the more your mind grows. The more expansive your mind, the better equipped you are to write.
Now, you’ve read enough books to know you want to write certain kind of story. You have studied the genre to a point where you believe you should be ready to start, but as you click on your computer screen, you still find yourself staring at a blank page. Where to begin? I could say, draw an outline. Many authors do. But, some award-winning, highly successful writers simply begin at the beginning and make notes as they go. Again, each writer has a different style, a different motivation, a different approach to writing. No one approach is more correct than another. All that matters is that it works for you. So, then, where do you start? How do find those elusive all-important first words that are essential in grabbing your reader? You sit, alone, pondering, wondering, thinking, “What to write? What to write? What words are the right words to write?” And those words don’t come. Why? – The answer likely lies in your plot sentence. Do you have one? While explaining to a friend what your story is about, you find yourself digressing and rambling in many directions, unable to formulate a cohesive description, it then becomes evident that you don’t have a clear understanding of your story at all and therefore are not ready to begin writing it. Even if the story changes, you should have an initial plot sentence before entering the story. Formulate one sentence that, in a nutshell, effectively describes the main plot, the main story arc, and more often than not, the protagonist of your story. The effectiveness of your story’s beginning depends largely on the structure and specificity of your plot sentence. Make certain the action of your story in your plot sentence comes before the noun or the mention of the main character. And by all means, avoid being vague. Ask yourself the necessary questions that will fill out your plot and your main character. For example, let’s say this is your plot sentence: “The story is about a college student who comes against life-altering obstacles that threaten to destroy his dream of becoming a professional football player.” Ask yourself these questions:
- Who is the college student?
- What is his name?
- Does he actually play college football?
- If so, what’s his position on the team?
- What year student is he?
- Is he any good at the game?
- What are the life-threatening obstacles?
- Are they chance obstacles, like he develops cancer or his house was washed away in a flood, or are they purposeful threats – someone is out to get him to intentionally hurt him.
- When deciding on the life-threatening obstacle, how did it happen and when?
- Why does he dream of being a professional football player – prospects for fame and fortune - love of the game - his father was a pro ball player - his father is pushing him to be a pro ball player - He was a 90 pound weakling who proved himself to be a powerful force on the football field.
Sounds like a lot for one sentence, but it really isn’t. You can condense all of your answers into one or two words and it is not against the rules to have more than one clause in your sentence (But be careful to not have too many as you may fall victim to the run-on sentence.) Once these questions are answered, then structure your sentence so the action is up front. Instead of “The story is about a college student…” turn it around.
“After a violent and suspiciously purposeful rogue tackle from rival Jack Snow, Blue Devil’s running back and senior college football favorite John Foxworthy is paralyzed from the waist down, left to struggle with his broken dreams, more importantly his father’s broken dreams for him, of becoming a professional football player.”
OK, it’s not perfect, but you get the idea. Now you have your plot sentence. So, how do you turn this into the opening lines of your book? Easy. The opening lines of your story should directly connect with the core or your plot. If you are writing about a college football player who dreams of being a pro, then start the story on the football field. If your story is about a town threatened by deadly forces from outer space, then begin the story with a spacecraft crash landing in the middle of a Midwestern town. If the plot of your novel circles around finding a serial killer who preys on college women with long dark hair, then open your novel with the murder of one of these women. From there you can either flashback or move forward. It’s up to you. Notice that in each example your story is opening with an action. It isn’t a student sitting at his desk in World Geography class, or a Midwestern family gathered around the dinner table in prayer or the young woman primping to go out for the night. That all may have a place later, but right at the start, jump into the action!
There’s one more element that is vitally important in creating that all-important opening scene, and that is the picture that you paint. How vivid is the scene, how specific the action. How clear is the scene. Will the reader be confused about what’s happening? What is the mood that is being set? Don’t be overly comic if the genre is literary drama, or draw out a graphic death scene if the book is a comedy. The mood must be instantaneously set. Later you can add comic relief, or dramatic reinforcement, or whatever you need to round out your story. At the start, the mood should be set. But how do you create a mood with words? How can you paint a picture with text? If you weren’t having fun before now, then here’s where you’ll start. This is where you begin the real creativity in your creative writing. And it all comes down to poetry. POETRY? Yes, poetry. As a poet, I have mastered many of the rhetorical devices used in writing verse and applied those devices to my prose writing.
Think about it. What is poetry? Poetry is taking one moment in time, one tiny slice of life, and presenting that moment to the public in the least amount of words possible. That is the opening of your book. Successful poetry concentrates on the concrete images and pictures that depict the emotions of the poet. By focusing on the concrete and eliminating the abstract, the poet is able to pinpoint the precise emotions they are trying to convey. If a poet were to do the opposite, that is focus on the abstract, then the meaning of the words would be open to too broad of an interpretation. By turning emotions like love, hate, fear, anger, frustration, depression, etc. into concrete images, the poet is able to more clearly and accessibly convey what she is trying to say. Take the emotion of the scene, the rush the football player feels as he’s racing for the goal, the disruption of peace in the sleepy Midwest town, the fear of the young woman walking alone at night, and turn it into an image. I will help you through that process in my next blog.
For now, send me your comments or questions regarding what you’ve learned or read so far in this blog, and I will be happy to answer you. Let’s make this interactive. You may know something I don’t regarding how to successfully write the opening pages of your novel or story. You may want to add to what I’ve already said or contradict some ideas. You may want to send some examples of what you’ve written for critique or just to share. Remember, if you are critiquing someone else’s work, be as constructive and kind as you would wish others to be to you. The purpose of critique is to enhance an existing work, not to interject ideas of your own or to simply say you like or don’t like something. We are looking for positive reinforcement and constructive advice.
Don’t worry, if you are eager to continue with the use of poetic rhetorical devices and concrete imagery in the writing of your prose fiction…It’s coming! In the meantime, I am looking forward to your comments and thank you for reading my blog!
Eileen Albrizio - Author: Messy on the Inside (poetry), Rain: Dark as Water in Winter (poetry), On the Edge (a recitation of poems on audio CD), Perennials: New & Selected Poems (poetry), Alision’s Weight (young adult novel), Dragonfly Net (mystery novel), What’s a Mother For? (one-act play –co-authored by Connie Magnan-Albrizio &-recognized by Writer’s Digest in 1996), Rain (one-act play – recognized by Writer’s Digest in 1997), The Blind Side of Night (compilation of short stories – in progress)
Winner of the 2003 and 2008 Individual Artist Fellowships from the Greater Hartford Arts Council. Former award-winning news anchor and journalist for NPR and its Connecticut affiliate.