Tag Archives: hook

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Opening Lines

I should complete a first draft before deciding on my opening lines. I know I know I know this, but I’m starting a new novel, and I want the first chapter to be really good, so I just spent a morning re-writing what I drafted yesterday.

You’re wasting your time. I scold myself, and it’s deserved. I don’t yet know these characters, don’t know where they’ll take this story. Write like your fingers are on fire, Kathi Appelt told me. Get all the way to the end before you revise, Ellen Howard told me.

I know I know I know this, but revision is so satisfying, and blank screens so terrifying.

And so I procrastinate.

I pulled a bunch of books from my shelves and poured over opening lines. I know these authors didn’t write these lines in the first week that they sat down to work on these books. I know I know I know this.

But still.

I want to write this well. Read these openings.

 

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

They took me in my nightgown.

Thinking back, the signs were there—family photos burned in the fireplace. Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.

We were taken.

 

Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone

When I was born, the doctor said, “I’m sorry.”

I had a full shock of dark hair and long legs like the rest of the women in Freddie’s side of the family, but no one noticed these things. No one saw anything but the wings, which were heart-shaped, crinkled like a paper fan. They were smaller than Freddie’s palm, slick with primordial ooze, compressed accordion-style against my back. The doctor whispered, “Some kind of birth defect.” Defect. “How some kids are born with tails and others with cleft palates.” He mopped his brow. “But I’ve never seen anything like this.”

 

Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer

Deep in darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the rocket and see the Earth. He could also see the moon sometimes, coming closer. The Earth rotated slowly and the spaceship moved slowly, relative to the things that were around it. There was nothing he could do now, one way or the other. He was part of a spaceship going to the moon. He wore white paper booties instead of shoes. He wore a jumpsuit instead of underwear. He was only human, or scant flesh and long bone, eyes clouded, and body breakable. He was off, launched from the Earth, and floating in space. He had been pushed, with force, away.

But in his mind, Maxon found himself thinking of home.

 

Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Everybody likes sugar.

Folks say, “There wouldn’t be any good food without sugar.” Like rhubarb cobbler. Blueberry Pie. Yellow cake.

But I hate sugar. I won’t eat it. Not ever.

“No sweets, just savories,” I used to tell Ma. “Corn bread. Grits.” Even nasty okra and green beans are better than sugar.

There’s all kinds of sugar. Crystals that turn lemons into lemonade. Syrup that cools into taffy. Or pralines, brittle. There’s even sugarcane you can suck until your lips wrinkle and pucker.

 

Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

I am sitting under the acacia tree on the ridge when I first see them: three men, in nice clothes, coming toward our house. Their shoulders are straight and their fat bellies strain against their belts when they walk. They are the image of power.

I wish I could see their faces, but my eyes aren’t good enough for that this far away. I peel off my long-sleeved shirt and my floppy hat with the cloth sewn onto the back and crawl to the edge of the ridge in nothing by my long pants. My skin burns so easily that I could never do this in the middle of the day, no matter how hot it was, but now that the sun is setting I can enjoy the feeling of the wind whispering over me. Our goats mill around me, eating their dinner; the breeze carries the smells of the evening meal my mother and sister are preparing up the slope. The three men walk to our door.

Hodi hodi!” the first man bellows.

 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.

I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
where
my great-great-grandparents
worked the deep rich land
unfree
dawn till dusk
unpaid
drank cool water from scooped-out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky’s mirrored constellation
to freedom.

 

Don’t you just feel hugged by the confidence in these voices? I do. Hugged. Embraced. Encouraged. Inspired. Ready now to go back and write like my fingers are on fire.

Crafting Nonfiction for Young Readers

I met Winifred Conkling in 2009 when we were students in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and today I’m thrilled to feature her reflections on the craft of writing. Winifred is the award-winning author of numerous books and articles for adults and children, and her newest book, Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery, comes out today from Algonquin Young Readers.

A.B. Westrick: Winifred, welcome!

Winifred Conkling: Thank you for inviting me, Anne.

ABW: Passenger on the Pearl is a heart-wrenching story that hooked me on page one. I can tell from the sidebars and source notes that you researched the life of Emily Edmonson and her contemporaries extensively. So my first question is how you distilled down what must have been a mountain of primary sources, and decided to begin the story where you did (with Emily’s mother’s fears about bringing children into the world)?

WC: I always struggle with where to start a story. You’re right, I started the process by reading piles of source material. I finally decided that the most natural way to frame the story was to focus on Emily’s birth into slavery and to end with her marriage and the promise that her children would be born free. In my background reading, I was devastated by the quote from Emily’s mother, Amelia, who had fallen in love but refused to marry, saying: “I loved Paul very much, but I thought it wasn’t right to bring children into the world to be slaves.” I am the mother of three, and I can’t imagine what it would feel like to know that my children would be destined to face the horrors of slavery. I know that young readers are familiar with the idea of slavery, but I wanted to make the suffering personal. Continue reading

Crafting a graphic novel-memoir

Author-illustrator Cece Bell is coming to the James River Writers conference in Richmond, VA, on October 18-19, and how lucky am I, that I got to interview her ahead of time!

She’s the author of numerous books, including Rabbit & Robot, Bee-Wigged, Itty-Bitty, the Sock Monkey series, and more. She was awesome enough to mail me an advance-reader copy of her new novel-memoir El Deafo, just out this month from Amulet Books. Woot, woot, and welcome, Cece.​ I’d love to talk with you about the craft of writing…

 

 

A.B. Westrick: El Deafo is a great read! The story tugged on my heartstrings from the start, hooking me right in.

Cece Bell: Thank you so much for doing this interview, and for reading the book, and for saying you enjoyed it!

ABW: It’s a great story. And my first question is about El Deafo’s first chapter—a fabulous chapter. You let us glimpse your transition at age four from regular-kid to sick-kid, followed by this line (page 3): “I am pulled away from my parents… and taken to a room. Somebody sticks a needle in my back.” The hook is both figurative and literal—ouch! Then your hospital roommate gets ice cream and you don’t. Oh, the injustice!

I get that you wanted to start the story at the point when your hearing loss started, but you did more than that. You dug deeply into the emotional truth of your situation. My questions are: (1) was that opening always your opening, or did you change it during the writing-and-illustrating process, and (2) what advice do you have for writers who struggle to tap into emotional truths? You’re a master at it! Have you adopted any rituals or memory-tricks to help you resurrect what it felt like to be four… or five… or six years old?

CB: So, to begin…

1. That wasn’t always the opening. I was originally going to start the book during the moment that I realize that my very powerful school hearing aid is allowing me to hear my teacher wherever she is in the entire school building. The exact moment, in fact, in which I realize that I have superpowers. But it soon became apparent that none of that would make sense without the back story, the “origin” story. So I decided to start from the beginning. It’s much better this way—it hooks the reader, as you say (the origin stories of comic book superheroes are the best part of comic books, in my opinion)—and it gets the hard stuff out of the way early, so the book can be opened up to more humorous things later. Continue reading

Characters and Comfort Zones

My agent recently had this to say about my current work-in-progress: she couldn’t identify with my main character and couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to spend an entire novel with him.

Ahhhhhhh!

Now, I can pull out my hair, or I can calm down (which, of course, I’ve done because that’s what I do). And once I wrapped my brain around her comments, it hit me that I don’t like my protagonist, either. He’s a jerk. Really. And he’s so much of a jerk that he’s… boring. No one is that much of a jerk all the time. A character—especially a main character, but also an antagonist as well as a secondary character—has to have redeeming qualities. My character needs complexity… nuance… depth.

So I’m on a quest to make him more likable, or at least interesting, and perhaps somewhat sympathetic, and I’ve considered techniques such as opening with a scene in which someone mistreats him (cue the universal instincts to root for the underdog and fight injustice), or a scene in which he’s in danger (get the adrenaline going).

But I think the better approach (time-consuming, but better) would be for me to dig more deeply into his character. I’ve shown his warts, and the problem is that my character is okay with that. He likes his tough exterior. He’s in his comfort zone, and I need to pull him out. So it’s Walgreens time: I need a tube of Compound W to peel away his roughness, find his soft spots… identify his longings… touch his heart.

I got to thinking about books that don’t open with a hook, and hook readers nonetheless, and one jumped to mind right away: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Such a fabulous book! Sáenz opens with a waking-up-bored-in-the-summer scene and still manages to hook me. How? Why? His writing is that good, his dialogue spot-on, his characters so real.

I could shelve my current WIP and begin a new novel. (My agent suggested as much.) But I’m stubborn. And I think this story needs to be told. And I believe in the value of perseverance. My first novel didn’t come together on the first draft, or the second, or the third. I just finished Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a marvelous novel that Doerr says took him ten years to write. (I have to wonder what his manuscript looked like at the two-year mark, which is what I’m approaching with my draft.) Like Sáenz, Doerr doesn’t open with an obvious hook. He opens with engaging prose and introduces his characters slowly, letting their stories unfold layer by layer by layer. We see them in their comfort zones before their worlds turn upside down, and it’s there—without comfort—when we get to know them best.

Sure, I’d like to race through my next draft, but hey—writing this story is going to take time. So, excuse me, but I’m headed to Walgreens. I have a character who needs a little Compound W love. In my current draft, you’d never hear him admit that, but in the revision, well, let’s just say he’s softening.

Begin with the unbelievable

Carrie Brown

Carrie Brown

After attending an excellent James River Writers panel discussion (“The Writing Show”) and Master Class in April with authors John Gregory Brown and Carrie Brown, I went home and revised my novel.

The Browns gave the audience some great tips, and one that particularly intrigued me was this: take the most unbelievable moment in your story, and put it first. Right up front. The opening paragraph. The opening sentence. Just lay it out there. Readers enter into a story on the first line. It’s the place where they’re most willing to suspend disbelief, so don’t delay that suspension. Hook them and take off running.

John Gregory Brown

John Gregory Brown

John Gregory Brown noted that if Kafka had waited until page three to tell us that Gregor Samsa had turned into a cockroach, we might have questioned and dismissed that bizarre transformation. Here is Kafka’s opening line to The Metamorphosis:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.

We might quibble with other aspects of this sentence (waking up is oh-so-overdone as an opening, and the participle isn’t as effective as straight-on past tense, and passive voice is oh-so-distancing), but hey—the unbelievable happens right away. It launches us into the story. And that was Brown’s point: readers will accept the unbelievable when a writer gives it to them straight-up. If you wait to give it to them later, you may have missed your chance.

The Last First DayBut here’s the thing: most writers can’t know what their first sentence or paragraph or chapter will be until they’ve written the last sentence. If you’re worrying about your opening before you’ve finished the first draft, I think you’re wasting time. Sure, it’s part of the process, and you can pat yourself on the back for that. But I think you need to push yourself all the way to the end before stewing over the beginning. Figure out what your story is really all about. Identify the essential conflict. Identify the most unbelievable moment in the story, the one that will strain your readers’ credibility. Then put that moment first and see how the story falls out from there.

The other take-away from my April visit to this James River Writers’ program was the reminder of how good it is to be part of a creative community. Richmond is a fabulous town in which to be a writer. While I love spending hours alone at my writing desk, I find that getting out and engaging with other writers juices me up.

Audubons WatchJohn Gregory Brown teaches at Sweet Briar College, and Carrie Brown at Hollins University, and I don’t have to be enrolled in either of their esteemed institutions to encounter them and benefit from their insights. I just have to seek out opportunities in my town. There are a lot of them (from conferences to workshops to panel discussions), and if I glean so much as (or as little as) one tidbit from each outing, my writing benefits. It’s all good.

 

 

 

 

Where to Begin a Novel

How and where is it best Come August, Come Freedomto enter into a particular story—which moment, which sounds and which smells should a writer introduce in the opening scene? When I first read Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau, I was fascinated by Gigi’s decision to begin the story the way she did. I asked her why she chose that approach, and am privileged to feature her answers here. I found Gigi’s comments as engaging as the novel.

A. B. Westrick: Come August, Come Freedom is the story of Gabriel, the enslaved blacksmith who organized a massive but ultimately unsuccessful rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. What I found intriguing was the way you chose to enter into Gabriel’s story. The first line is, “Ma believed,” and the chapter unfolds to show Ma nursing him when he was six months old. Why did you choose to begin the book with Ma?

Gigi Amateau:  As I read and studied about the institution of slavery during Gabriel’s lifetime, I learned (in a way that I hadn’t really integrated into my thinking about slavery before writing Come August, Come Freedom) that the crucible of slavery was the childbearing role of enslaved women. The laws governing a person’s status as free or enslaved were grounded in the concept of maternal descent—the mother’s status (not the father’s) determined a child’s status. So, the impulsion of the plot is maternal descent. Also, I wanted to create the character of Gabriel as a person who was not the first freedom fighter in his community or in his family, but one who was born into a tradition of resisting oppression and fighting for freedom. So, I surrounded him early on in the novel with men and women imagining freedom and rebelling against slavery. Continue reading

Loglines and “The Next Big Thing”

LoglineAsk a novelist what he or she is working on, and you’re apt to get a rambling answer because the process of writing a novel is often long and messy. Novels explore the lives of multiple characters, develop multiple plots and subplots—you get what I’m saying. Novels are complicated. So it almost seems unfair that if the writer hopes to query an agent with the completed masterpiece, it’s necessary to boil the whole thing down to a single sentence. Known as a logline (novelists have screenwriters to thank for this term), this one sentence gem can take weeks to perfect. But the time spent is worth the effort, as a well-written logline can lead to a quick sale.

To craft a logline, the writer must focus on the protagonist and his/her emotional journey, letting go of sub-plots and secondary characters. To read examples of loglines, take a moment to peruse posts in “The Next Big Thing” blog chain.

Thank you to writer Virginia Pye, author of the 2013 debut River of Dust, for inviting me to participate in “The Next Big Thing”—a set of questions for writers about what they’re working on, or what book is coming soon. Here are my answers:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

Brotherhood

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A 14-year old boy struggles to protect a friend from the gang he has joined (the K.K.K. in 1867).

Where did the idea come from for the book?

This book began with a feeling more than an idea. As a young boy in the South in the 1930’s, my father felt stuck and vowed never to raise his own children there. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I would ask why he wanted out, and he’d duck my questions, shake his head, grow pensive and say things like, “You can judge people in any number of ways, but don’t ever judge them by the color of their skin.” Never the answer I expected. So I began to wonder what would make a shy, gentle white boy vow to flee the South. What did he see that he refused to talk about? While my dad never got involved with the Ku Klux Klan, I know that the Klan wreaked havoc in the South during Daddy’s growing up years. I began to imagine what sorts of influences would lead a boy to join a gang—a brotherhood—then yearn to get out but not be free to leave. The book grew from that sense of yearning.

What genre does your book fall under?

Young Adult

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

For the brothers, I’d go with Luke Benward and Sterling Beaumon.  For Rachel, the freed slave who becomes a teacher, Keke Palmer would be awesome, but if Hollywood waits five years before filming, then Willow Smith will be old enough for the role.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by Leigh Feldman at Writers House, and Brotherhood will be published by Viking/Penguin. My editor there is Regina Hayes.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About two years for the first draft, and another year and a half for multiple additional drafts.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson‘s historical fiction—books such as Fever 1793, and Chains, and Forge. If readers come to compare my book to hers, that would be fabulous!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

One of my boys is a reluctant reader, so I set out to write a novel that even a boy—my boy—would read.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

My protagonist (a Klan member) befriends a freed slave girl who’s spunky and smart. He must keep the friendship secret, as the year is 1867, a time when distrust smoldered between the races. While most post-Civil War books address America’s political landscape, my book is all about the people—about what it might have felt like to live through the tumultuous times that we’ve come to call The Period of Reconstruction.

I’ve invited debut novelists to participate in “The Next Big Thing” blog chain. Next week, look for blog posts from Melanie Crowder, author of Parched; Cat Winters, author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds; and L.R. Giles, author of Fake ID.

Self-Doubt

I’m scared right now. Scared that I won’t be able to write another novel, or at least, not one worth reading. Sure, I know that I can finish one—that I can sit for hours and days and weeks and months at a time with a handful of characters and a setting—I’m not scared about the discipline of the process. I love the process. (Ten years ago, the necessary discipline would have scared me, so at least I’ve made progress with the process…)

I’m scared about the content. The voice. The authenticity of the characters. Can I write a novel that keeps readers turning pages? One that matters? This past weekend I watched a movie that entertained me, but at times I could feel the writer trying too hard to make a scene work. He wanted to establish a character’s motivation, create tension, get a laugh… and his presence took me out of the story. I fear that I make the same mistakes with my own writing, and the fear is blocking me from writing anything worthwhile.

Philip PullmanWill people read my books? Will they re-read them? I need to get past the self-doubt! I turned to interviews with prolific author Philip Pullman for advice, and found some here. About one of his own works-in-progress, he says, “I read it all again and think it’s horrible, and get very depressed. That’s one of the things you have to put up with.”

In this pep talk to National Novel Writing participants, he says,

… page 70 is where the misery strikes. All the initial excitement has drained away; you’ve begun to see all the hideous problems you’ve set yourself; you are horribly aware of the minute size of your own talent compared to the colossal proportions of the task you’ve undertaken; that’s when you really want to give up.

Then there are these words from an interview with Pullman at PsychCentral:

… don’t listen to people (such as publishers) who think that you need to write what readers say they want. Readers don’t always know what they want… So the only thing you need to do is forget about pleasing other people, and aim to please yourself alone. That way, you’ll have a chance of writing something that other people WILL want to read, because it’ll take them by surprise. It’s also much more fun writing to please yourself.

Thank you, Philip Pullman! I needed to step away from my fiction to wrestle with my doubts and draft this post… needed to accept the depression and fear as part of the process. This part isn’t fun, but I’ve said my piece and gotten it off my chest. Now I’m ready to dive back in. Come to think of it… I’m working on a scene in a chapter that’s pretty close to page 70…

Grounding the reader

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club Fight Clubbegins like this:

         Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

         The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says, “We really won’t die.”

Over the top? Yes. Gun in the opening sentence? Come on. Spare me. So overdone. But the novel starts to work in the third paragraph:

         With my tongue I can feel the silencer holes we drilled into the barrel of the gun. Most of the noise a gunshot makes is expanding gases, and there’s the tiny sonic boom a bullet makes because it travels so fast. To make a silencer, you just drill holes in the barrel of the gun, a lot of holes. This lets the gas escape and slows the bullet to below the speed of sound.

The narrative has stopped screaming, “Hook the reader on page one.” This is interesting. The gun that began as a gimmick now has a tongue on its silencer holes. Palahniuk has taken the reader to a new place. I’m intrigued. By page two, I’m in the moment with these characters and yes, I’m hooked.

What has hooked me? The details. In chapter one it’s guns and the nuances of mixing sawdust and chemicals into explosives. In chapter two it’s narrowly-focused support groups. Chapter three, movie projector reels, all from the perspective of a protagonist with insomnia. It’s intense. Disjointed. Engaging. No hand-holding here. Instead, it’s my job to keep up, and I cannot turn the pages fast enough. In scene after scene, I latch onto details that ground me in an otherwise chaotic narrative. I’ve suspended disbelief and clicked the seat belt. Now I’m leaning forward, gripping the safety bar, not feeling safe at all. I taste metal, smell tarmac exhaust, and hear the crunch of buttered popcorn on the theater floor.

In my own writing these days, I’ve made the switch from soul-searching and re-evaluating a novel that my agent nixed to revisions—major revisions. I don’t need a gun in the first sentence to wake up my story, but I need details. I’ve figured out what my protagonist wants. Now can I succeed in grounding readers so they’ll suspend disbelief and come along for the ride? If Palahniuk can do it, so can I.