ACE BAKER has won the Magpie Poetry Award, the PNWA Poetry Prize, the SIWC Poetry Contest, and The Roux Press Poetry Prize. His short story "Victory Girl" won the Storyteller Award. Ace maintains a website at www.fighttowrite.com and can be followed @writeracebaker

Zoom in for a great opening…like Jennifer Landels’ “Allaigna’s Song” !

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If you’re looking for a great way to start your next piece of writing, think Hollywood and ZOOM IN, like Jennifer Landels does in her serialized novel, Allaigna’s Song. Take a look at the opening from the first excerpt published in Pulp Literature:

If you walk down the grand staircase of Castle Osthegn, you will see a family portrait. It is placed across the landing from the wide steps so that your eye is drawn helplessly into the picture as you descend. Such is the skill of the Leisanmira painter that you are almost convinced the little girl on the right will jump out of the frame and take off pell-mell into the courtyard. And you can tell that is what she wanted to be doing when the image was painted.

The little girl was me.

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Notice how Landels zooms in from the castle to the staircase, to the landing, to the portrait, to the girl inside the portrait. It’s very visual–like the opening to a movie–and it invites the reader inside the space smoothly. It’s a very effective use of second person as well, and the overall effect is that we’re part of the story almost immediately.

What separates Landels’ work from others who use a technique like this is what comes next: “The little girl was me.” She takes us into the portrait, focusing on the setting, and then with that one line, she takes us back out as she begins to focus on character. And what do we want to know early in any narrative? Setting and character.

It’s an artistic way to deal with “the basic building blocks” of story.

Try this:

There is a photograph in a frame that has a cracked pane of glass on a nightstand in a ____________’s bedroom. Someone is peeking in from the outside. Focus on the room, first, then the bed, the table, the picture in the frame, then the person or people in the photo. Then let us know how the person is related to the one peeking in, and lead into telling us THAT character’s story. Have fun with this!

Vandermeer on dissection for fiction writers

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First of all, I picked up a copy of Jeff Vandermeer’s book, Wonderbook, and I’m having trouble deciding whether it’s a book about writing or a work of art–amazing! But on page 42, I read the following:

To grow as a fiction writer, you absolutely must engage in some dissection of stories, your own and the work of others.

It’s an idea I have long supported…and if you scroll back through many screens of entries on fighttowrite.com, you’ll see many dissections of technique I’ve put up about the strong style of writers I admire. Your only assignment today? To take a peek back over those pages and see if a certain technique catches your eye. Then roll up your sleeves, warm up your keyboard, put your butt firmly in your chair (or start walking at a leisurely pace if you own a Trek Desk), and START WRITING!

Can you smell it? How to use strong imagery like Natalie Kusz in “Vital Signs”!

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Imagery is a definite “choose your weapon” topic. I mean, you have five senses to choose from (or combinations of them). While sight and touch are present in many works, look at how Natalie Kusz appeals to the sense of SMELL in “Vital Signs”:

I was always waking up, in those days, to the smell of gauze soaked with mucus and needing to be changed. Even when I cannot recall what parts of me were bandaged then, I remember vividly that smell, a sort of fecund, salty, warm one like something shut up and kept alive too long in a dead space. Most of the details I remember from that time are smells, and the chancest whiff from the folds of surgical greens or the faint scent of ether on cold fingers can still drag me, reflexively, back to that life. . .

Smell has the power to take us back to certain moments–IMMEDIATELY! Now, while most of us don’t have an experience to match Kusz’, she takes us there and makes us feel as if we’re the ones lying in the bed, not her. Instant pathos, instant connection. We can picture the scene easily–someone lying in a hospital bed, recovering–but the smells sink it home. The impression given is that the person has been in this state for quite some time, and is not about to escape it anytime soon.

Try this:

Choose that street–you know, the alley you would NEVER walk down–and walk down it in your mind. It’s narrower than you thought, isn’t it? The air is different. And it’s not just the garbage, but the kinds of waste you’re walking through, AND the length of time it’s been there. Take five minutes and describe what you find in the alley. Use smell imagery as the STAR of your piece.

Make your opening paragraph Google-worthy!

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          Strange title for today’s post, I know. I’ll let you know in a minute or two what I mean by it, but in the meantime, read this short passage from “Man Changing into Thunderbird,” by Armand Garnet Ruffo(published in the summer 2013 edition of The Malahat Review):

The room is cramped with people. an assortment of bundles and boxes stacked along the walls, packsacks hanging from hooks. The smell of tobacco, sweetgrass, damp canvas. To perform the Ritual of the Shaking Tent is illegal. The Government of Canada has banned it along with other ceremonies and everyone in the room is afraid of going to jail. Indian Affairs officials have posted signs warning of the consequences. The RCMP have already made arrests. They announce they are doing it for their own good. Like the Church, the government is determined to rid the people of superstition.

          Now admit it–you’re more than a LITTLE curious about what this is all about, aren’t you? I mean, a gathering based on “superstition” is deemed illegal by the Canadian government and the RCMP are cracking down on it? Just what era in Canadian history are we talking about here? And what is THE RITUAL OF THE SHAKING TENT?

          It makes you so interested in it that you want to Google it, right then and there, to find out more. A touch of specialized language, a bit of jargon we’re unfamiliar with, can make us curious enough to push on. In case it’s hooked you enough to make you want to read the rest, here’s a link to the article in its entirety:

http://web.uvic.ca/malahat/excerpts/ruffo.html

Try this:

Find a bit of jargon, a bit of specialized lingo that only people “in the know” for that particular topic have a clue about. It doesn’t matter if it involves fixing a butterfly valve (mechanics know what I’m talking about), popping an Ollie (yo, skater dudes), or creating the perfect anticipatory set (shout out to all those Saskatchewan teachers!), including a BIT of jargon can raise the interest level in readers just enough to make them read on.  Use it and create the perfect opening to your next piece of creative writing!

The lists go on… list openings, that is!

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          Yesterday, I posted a blog about list openings by  a few writers who use the technique well to create a mood early. If you haven’t made your way through that blog yet, go back and treat yourself!

Today, there is no new “Try this.” Today, I want to show you another LONG list example I didn’t want to cram into yesterday’s post. The feeling he creates in his readers through a list opening is one of UNCERTAINTY. So without any further delay,  here is Louis Menand, educating us about how we don’t know what we think we know, in his article “Notable Quotables,” in The New Yorker :

Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Neither Ingrid Bergman nor anyone else in Casablanca says “Play it again, Sam” ; Leo Durocher did not say “Nice guys finish last”; Vince Lombardi did say “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” quite often, but he got the line from someone else. Patrick Henry almost certainly did not say “Give me liberty, or give me death!”; William Tecumseh Sherman never wrote the words “War is hell”; and there is no evidence that Horace Greeley said “Go west, young man.” Marie Antoinette did not say “Let them eat cake”; Hermann Goring did not say “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my gun”; and Muhammed Ali did not say “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Gordon Gekko, the character played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street, does not say “Greed is good”; James Cagney never says “You dirty rat” in any of his films; and no movie actor, including Charles Boyer, ever said “Come with me to the Casbah.” Many of the phrases for which Winston Churchill is famous he adapted from the phrases of other people, and when Yogi Berra said “I didn’t really say everything I said” he was correct.

So what? Why should we care? Quotable quotes are coins rubbed smooth by circulation…

Now that is one LONG list for a lead paragraph, but the effect is obvious–it makes readers question what they THINK they know (like those song lyrics you THOUGHT you heard, but kind of invented unknowingly?). In any case, that’s all I have to spew for the moment about the list opening–make it another tool in your toolbox, and join me tomorrow for another writing strategy . . .

LIST OPENINGS…how they can help your fiction and nonfiction

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          There is a power to momentum that is undeniable and unstoppable. Many writers have learned to benefit from the energy of a LIST early in a piece of creative fiction or nonfiction. Let me SHOW you what I mean . . .

Here’s a beginning paragraph from Gordon Grice’s “The Black Widow” in High Plains Literary Review:

I hunt black widow. When I find one, I capture it. I have found them in discarded wheels and tires and under railroad ties. I have found them in house foundations and cellars, in automotive shops and toolsheds, in water meters and rock gardens, against fences and in cinderblock walls. I have found them in a hospital and in the den of a rattlesnake, and once on the bottom of the chair I was sitting in.

          By my count, that’s, ummm, at least a Baker’s dozen (13!) places where he has found these dangerous creatures–and they all appear in the first paragraph of his nonfiction piece. Although they’re a rare sight for most people (and most of us would like to keep it that way), his list of where he has found them makes it seem as though they’re lurking everywhere, just waiting for an unsuspecting victim.

          Notice also the fluency he creates by pairing the places until he disrupts the flow and mentions the final (and scariest) one all by itself. An extremely effective technique. And just in case you’d like another example, take a peek at this part of the opening paragraph from Danielle Ofri’s “Living Will,” in The Missouri Review:

He had survived three heart attacks and seven strokes. One kidney had been removed. He suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, and congestive heart failure. He had emphysema, glaucoma, severe migraines, and arthritis. His medical history included pancreatitis, diverticulitis, pyelonephritis, sinusitis, cholelithiasis, tinnitus, and ankylosing spondylitis. They typed paper also mentioned gastroesophageal reflux, vertigo, and depression. I quickly glanced over to the man hooked up to the ventilator to verify that he was indeed alive.

          First, talk about instant pathos–we care, and we’d never wish this on our worst enemy. The PILE of diseases and disorders this man has had to deal with is just that–a mountain of challenges. The unfamiliar names scare us, and when they are heaped on top of one another in his medical charts, they seem like much more than any person could be expected to endure. And that’s JUST what the writer wants us to feel at that moment, considering the title of her article is “Living Will.” We can guess at the issues involved…and who could blame someone for refusing life-sustaining procedures when the person is enduring this kind of pain?

          Whether fear or sadness or any other type of emotion a writer might try to create early on, a list of specifics can help make that happen. Whether it’s a list of familiar places or unfamiliar diseases, the effect is much the same–before we finish the first paragraph, we’re feeling exactly the way the writer wants us to feel. Now that’s a power punch!

Try this:

Pick an emotion, any emotion. Now think of a list that can help create those feelings. Contents of someone’s bedroom? Someone’s purse? The trunk of someone’s car? The junkpile someone’s searching through to try and find something, anything of worth? Pick a few ideas and toy with them–you just might find the beginning to your next piece of writing!

STARTERS : Great opening lines from 2013 BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS

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I picked up a copy of the 2013 BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, edited by Cheryl Strayed. Here are a few of the best opening lines:

On Thanksgiving my father asked me if I wanted to visit the Nazi. –“Keeper of the Flame,” by Matthew Vollmer

The first time I heard her I didn’t hear her at all. –“Some Notes on the Attunement,” by Zadie Smith

I was eleven the first time I saw someone killed. –“When They Let Them Bleed,” by Tod Goldberg

For the first few months after my son was born, I called him The Baby, or sometimes just Him with a capital H, huge proper nouns to illustrate how completely he took over my life. –“Channel B,” by Megan Stielstra

I have this story from the artist Tracy Hicks about his former father-in-law, who had a 1960s pickup he’d restored and customized–spent years on the project, loved this truck like nothing else–until one day he backed over one of his kittens in the driveway. –“El Camino Doloroso,” by David Searcy

Whenever you’re stuck in your own writing, pick up a journal or anthology and read some of your favorite writers or discover new ones. And if you get a minute, let me know what some of your favorite openings are too…

Jennifer Manuel #002: Pathos and simile in SILENT E !

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After my analysis of Jennifer Manuel’s award-winning story, “The Woman in the Box with the Baby,” Jennifer wrote and tweeted to tell me she was pleased with what I had to say about her work –whew!

She also e-mailed me a copy of another award-winning tale of hers, “Silent E,” a story that earned an honorable mention in the latest Fiddlehead contest. There are two techniques I want to analyze here, on www.fighttowrite.com , and a third I’ll mention only and let you read for yourself if you can get your hands on a copy.

PATHOS

One important point I always make to young writers or starting writers, is the importance of PATHOS. You need readers to care about your character before you bring in the main conflict. Otherwise, they won’t care about the conflict your character experiences. The protagonist could literally leap off a cliff and we wouldn’t care if we’re not at all invested in the person.

Manuel establishes pathos for Leroy, an unlikeable bully, in “Silent E,” and she does it in at least three ways:

  1. A physical ailment he struggles with:

 

“Small creatures, moon-shaped and pearly-white, burrow into Leroy’s hands. You can see their tunnels, like thin gray pencil lines, under his skin. The creatures lay eggs between his fingers, then eggs hatch, and soon more creatures resurface to fornicate on his knuckles. Small red bumps and blisters spread to this hands to his wrists to his elbows. . . . Their itching drives him mad.”

 

It’s an ailment he’s embarrassed to tell others about, but the longer he delays, the worse his condition becomes.

 

2. Older half-brothers, who bullied him:

“ ‘Please let me up,’ he said.

His half-brothers sat there on the dock for hours, fishing for rock cods and keeping Leroy in the water. Tired and cold, Leroy wrapped himself around one of the pilings under the dock, where he shivered and cried and bled from the barnacles, until the sun set and his half-brothers went home.”

 

3.  Low self-esteem:

“Finally he gives up and slaps his notebook onto his desk. It’s crisp and clean and hardly used except for the rows of leroy he keeps printing on the cover, without any capital L’s, even though Miss Royston has taught him about proper nouns. You’re more important than that, she has told him, don’t you think you deserve a capital?”

 

  It is incredibly tough to make readers cheer for an unlikeable villain. Manuel more than manages to accomplish it by building strong pathos early, adding to it as the story progresses.

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING INCREDIBLY PICKY AND TECHNICAL:

I can sometimes get carried away with dissections of writing I love, so let me give you an example from this story:

FROM THE MANUEL MANUAL OF FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE:

First, let me show you three examples of similes Manuel uses in this story:

 

  1. Anybody who wants to sharpen a pencil, or get something from the cart area, or leave to use the washroom has to step over his long legs. Like a tollbooth: the payment is your full attention.

2. The pull of Leroy’s gaze, like a puppet string, holds Ronnie in place.

3. He leans on the wall beside the classroom door and curls his wrist around the doorknob like a creeping tendril.

 

           Notice anything? First, in terms of sentence fluency, the similes appear in different parts of the sentences—beginning, middle, and end. Some writers remember to vary the lengths of sentences, which helps fluency, but Manuel here is changing the very structure, even though these three examples are performing similar roles.

           Also, look at WHAT these similes are used to compare–long legs, puppet strings, creeping tendrils–connection. Leroy wants to feel connected, wants others to have to stop and pay him attention and his legs in the way help him accomplish just that; he acts out to draw their attention like a puppeteer may manipulate one of her dolls; and just as a plant sends tendrils into the earth to seek nourishment, Leroy finds the attention he so desperately seeks not at home, but in a school classroom.

BY THE WAY…

          I mentioned a third strong point in the story (other than the incredible story itself) that I was going to let you know about, and that is her use of EXTENDED METAPHOR. She chooses an unlikely metaphor (a tree representing a boy) and develops it and returns to it in many ways throughout the story.  It takes the story to a deeper level, using imagery and symbolism to add layers. 

          I know that I can learn much about writing by reading Jennifer Manuel’s work. I can’t wait until a collection of Miss Royston stories (including “The Woman in the Box with the Baby,” “All Those Teeth in the Sand,” and “Silent E”) is available for purchase. I’ll let you know when I know… 

          My utmost thanks to Jennifer for sharing her stories with me. It’s a pleasure to read such well-crafted work.