Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Finding Your Starting Point

The importance of the first few lines we write cannot be underestimated. That first string of words has to reach into a reader’s heart, mind, or soul and grab them, pull them into the story, or attract them to our main character, and keep them reading.
How do you know where your story begins?

I’d suggest that, when we start a new manuscript, we don’t always know the starting point. We discover the best possible starting point as we write. In reading through a first draft of a recent manuscript I’d finished, I discovered the starting point midway through the first chapter. All that came before was unnecessary information. I knew the moment I hit the starting point—the lines that pulled me in and propelled me into the story.

Agents, editors and readers aren’t privy to our internal reasoning as to how back story and information that provides a set-up, no matter how well-written, comes into play. They want a line or two, at the very beginning, that makes them want to know more.

Think about it. If I write: Sue was my best friend all through school. We know each others secrets as well as we know our own. She’s the first person I call when I have good news to share. I’m the one she turns to when she needs a listening ear. We’re closer than sisters. The call came at three a.m. My best friend, Sue, is missing.

Do you really want to know about the relationship first? Or do the last two lines of that paragraph set up the story and make you want to know more?

Find your starting point--and write!


Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Simpler Time (a reflective essay)

It was only a two-hour flight from Memphis to Pittsburgh. The plane was cramped and bumped along on the changing air currents, making the flight seem longer. It was cool when I left Memphis, though the forecast was for sun and fifty degrees—not bad for February. As we flew northeast, I gazed out of the narrow window and, through a break in the clouds, could see snow blanketing fields and capping mountains—reminding me that it was still winter.

I was going home. Well, not exactly home, but to the place I had called home since my mother had died. Home—the home of my childhood—didn’t exist any longer.

My thoughts drifted back to that place—the old clapboard house, built by my great-grandfather, the boards blackened by years of coal smoke and pock-marked by termites. I wondered now why no one had ever thought to paint it. The house had stood out starkly alongside the other homes in the neighborhood—those of brick, or soft, white siding, or cloaked by a coat of glistening paint.

It was home, however. Warmth emanated from a large hearth in the center room that had been converted from a dining room to a living room and back again. The decades-old wallpaper evidenced a bygone era and bore crude crayon drawings from my early years as an aspiring artist. The air was often heavy with a mixture of furniture polish, cigarette smoke, and homemade pie.

The dining room was nearly filled by my great-grandmother’s dark cherry table that opened to comfortably seat twelve and had twelve matching high-back chairs with brocade cushions. It was the finest piece of furniture in the house. My sister and I used to line the chairs in a double row and imagine we were on a passenger train, crossing the plains, or en route to some exotic land. I always got to be the engineer, because I was older and I was bigger. She would line her dolls on the seats, pretending they were the passengers, and would pass down the aisle collecting the tickets we had crafted from construction paper.

I didn’t have dolls. Instead, I strapped my holster to my hip and practiced my quick draw—just in case of an attempted train robbery. We could play like that for hours, until we got on Mom’s nerves. We were then told to, “Go outside and get the stink blown off ya’.” That was her way of saying, “You’re driving me crazy, and it’s a nice day. Go and play outside for a while.”

It was a simpler time—the fifties—when innocence was cherished. We were four and six and would think nothing of bounding out into the yard wearing only cotton briefs, a cowboy hat with matching boots and, of course, my holster. We would invent games, explore hiding places under the porch, and invite ourselves to dinner at a neighbor’s house. We lived in a neighborhood where the kids were everyone’s kids, and every parent had the authority to correct you.

On balmy summer evenings, adults gathered on porch steps or sat in the yard in folding chairs while all the kids raced from yard to yard, playing tag or catching fireflies. Eventually, someone would disappear and return with cold drinks for the adults and popsicles for all the kids. On any given evening, one of the youngest would fall and scrape a knee, only to be scooped up and comforted by the nearest adult, then sent back into the fray.

It was a simpler time.

The era of the fifties was a good time to be a kid. I sometimes look around today and think about what kids have now that we didn’t have. But then I like to think of what we had that, I fear, has been lost—we had disorganized sports where we learned to choose sides, to compete, and to deal with rejection and loss; we had two, sometimes three, generations under one roof; we had elders who would tell us stories about the past and anecdotes about quirky family members, and we eagerly listened; we had imagination that drove our play; we had structure that taught us to know limits. We had childhood, and were allowed to be children. We had adults who, each in his or her own fumbling way, tried to keep us alive long enough to graduate from high school and to then be sent out on our own. We had few expectations, but many rules, and we knew them. We had consequences, and we suffered them. We had rewards, and we earned them. The rules were clear, the consequences reasonable, and the rewards often something as little as a quarter.

It was a simpler time.

We had heroes, too. My personal favorites were the Lone Ranger, Hop-Along Cassidy, Sky King, and Lassie—all who fought for justice, countered evil, and saved the day. We had dreams. By the time I was ten, I had read Black Beauty at least four times. I dreamt that I would grow up and ride around the country on a huge black stallion named Gypsy. We would sleep under the stars and go wherever the trail would lead—this from the person who now considers camping a night at Motel 6!

We had a house with one bathroom and one telephone, and you had to stand in one place to talk on it. We had one car—a well-used '47 Buick. We had an 8mm movie camera that silently captured birthday parties, parades, and Mom trying the hula hoop. A really good time was getting together with the family to watch our silent movies. We had a family doctor who actually made house calls and sometimes prescribed such non-traditional remedies as a shot of whiskey to cure the croup—and who, by the way, charged five dollars for a visit. We lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone. Our friendships blurred all lines of distinction for color, class, or belief—the other kids were just other kids.

We lived life. We savored it. We chewed it slowly, letting the flavors become a part of us—taking it all in—with few distractions. We had time.

Today, life comes at us faster, passes by quickly, and leaves us shaking in its wake, often times feeling unsatisfied and empty—swept along by our busy-ness. How many times do we find ourselves saying things like, “I can’t believe it’s Christmas already!” I don’t remember hearing that much when I was a child. We lived in the moment, eased into the seasons, enjoyed the transitions. I don’t remember three out of four kids in my class being diagnosed with ADHD. We just had the typical one or two “bad” kids who spoke out in class, wouldn’t keep still, and spent a lot of time in the corner. There was no diagnosis for childhood.

We’ve all heard the cliché, “Stop and smell the roses,” but we’re often moving so fast that we have to grab the rose on our way by, snapping it off at the stem and carrying it along until we find the time to take a far too brief sniff. The scent fades, the rose dies, and we are left with only browning petals, the sting of a thorn, and unfulfilled longing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I rely on my computer and my cell phone. I wonder how I got by, day to day, without either. And, I’ll admit, I’ve enjoyed a video game now and then. But right now, at this moment, sitting on this plane and remembering how life used to be, I’ve come to realize that in moving forward, I may have left behind things that served me well.

I made some rules for myself: I won’t spend every waking hour mindlessly surfing the net. I’ll put at least as much effort into being happy, as I put into being dissatisfied. I’ll appreciate my cell phone for its convenience and the reassurance it offers, but I’ll turn it off at certain times—at restaurants, the theatre, during conversation with friends, while walking in the woods. I’ll give my work one hundred percent, but I’ll give the rest of my life one hundred percent, as well. I’ll put time aside and savor that time to smell roses, to really watch sunrises and sunsets, to listen to the laughter of children, to not be surprised when holidays sneak up on me, to read the credits after a movie.

I have an older, wiser friend who once said, “If life was meant to be lived that fast, I’d have been born with a rocket strapped to my ass.” Crudely put, but insightful just the same.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if we just stopped? What would happen if we went back—the way you do when you hurry past a shiny penny lying in a parking lot, then stop and go back to pick it up, believing in its power to bring good fortune? What would happen if, for one day, we turned off the TV, the computer and the video games with which we pass the time, downshifted a gear or two and stepped outside to share an iced tea with the neighbors, to catch fireflies with the kids, to watch a sunset, and to act as if today, this moment, is the most important?

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Well, it has a lot to do with my writing. We are, for better or worse, shaped by our early years, the values handed down to us by parents and grandparents, the things we have as well as the things for which we hunger. I know the ways my writing is influenced by all of these factors--the way I've learned to 'do' life.

What has made you the writer you are today?

Linda :)