Asking Yourself The Important Questions

Any story is a very complex transaction between writer and reader. This is particularly true of creative nonfiction stories. At the beginning of a project, it’s useful for the writer to answer three questions about this transaction:

* Who is writing this?

* Why am I telling this story?

* Who will be reading this?

The answer to the first question seems obvious to the writer: I am writing this. But it’s a trick question, a two-parter.

One part is, Who am I in life?

The second part is, Who am I to be telling this particular story?

To begin to answer, you must ask yourself, Where is my passion? What keeps me awake at night? What are the rules of conduct I set for myself as I make my way in the world? What makes me angry or lifts up my spirit? What am I willing to defend, and how far will I go to defend it? What do I really believe in? It’s not enough to answer glibly, as one of my students did recently, “Family, God and Country,” To write compelling, creative nonfiction, you need a more exact answer than that.

Bob knows!

If you find your passion, you will find your subject — because the subject begins with the writer.

Bob Reiss recounts the story of his first meeting with Walter Anderson, editor of Parade magazine. He managed to get an appointment with Anderson, even though he had just left the Chicago Tribune to freelance. Reiss had a list of eight ideas — story proposals — that he thought were original and interesting. As he ticked off his eight brilliant ideas, Anderson dismissed each one in turn. He’d heard them all before. Within half a minute, Reiss was out of pitches.

“And I figured, I guess I handled that wrong — it’s time to leave,” Reiss recalls. “Wrong again. Anderson started talking, and he talked to me for 30 minutes. Started telling me about his life, about being in the Marines, about what he thought of stuff, and at first I was thinking, what is he trying to tell me? And then I gave up and just started listening.”

When it was time to leave, Anderson shook his hand, Reiss says, and told him: “`Write me a letter and tell me what you believe in.’ He didn’t ask me to write him a letter and give him any story ideas. He just wanted to know if I knew what I believed in.”

Like most of us, despite years of newspaper experience, travel and witness, Reiss couldn’t say at that moment just what he believed in — what he was passionate about. He went home and racked his brain for an answer to Anderson’s challenge. At last he wrote a letter containing two stories: one of a thing that had disgusted him, the other of an event that had moved him. “Disgust came from sitting in a courtroom in Washington and watching a convicted terrorist who’d killed a friend’s wife get a reduced sentence at the prosecutor’s request.

“And the thing that moved me most was standing on the floor of Madison Square Garden on the night Jimmy Carter got nominated, and the lights went off, and they played `Fanfare for the Common Man,, and in a pure glorious moment I felt like I was in a room with all the people who had ever nominated any president, and experienced at least in my mind a sense of what democracy is supposed to be at its best and greatest, and started to cry. The lights came on and everyone was crying.

“I just wrote him those two stories. I got a note back from him and it said, `I guess we think the same way — and we’ll have to live with it., And I got an assignment.” Time and again in his writing, Reiss returns in some fashion or other to those two essential subjects: justice and politics.

What you believe in is a large part of who you are, and who you are determines your point of view on the world. That point of view yields subjects, and it will very often determine your approach to those subjects. So the Delphic oracle’s admonition “Know thyself” is not just of lofty concern to the soul; it’s of urgent, practical value to the craft.

Discovering Who You Are

Start with a simple exercise. Each of us is a kind of multiple personality, playing different roles in public and in private. List ten different identities for yourself For example, husband, father, college graduate, resident of DC, runner, veteran, guitar player, American, Catholic, Boy’s Club volunteer. Write a short paragraph describing yourself in each of these identities.

As a veteran, you may have strong opinions about the role of the US military in keeping peace around the world. As a father, you may be worried by the sudden transformation of your teenaged daughter into a nose-ringed monster in a black T-shirt bearing a death’s head inscribed “Spawn Till You Die.” As an employee, you may be somebody with a real expertise with POS systems and retail software systems in general. As a Catholic, you’re troubled by — or maybe tremendously reassured by — the latest papal edict on family planning.

As you write about what concerns you in each of these roles, some of the superficial subjects will bloom into something deeper, more profound, that isn’t in the headlines but lies behind the headlines, between the lines of the facile stories in the news magazines. Between the lines of your own cocktail party opinions.

What began as a short paragraph may for on to the bottom of the page. Not for every identity — some of the people you are will be straightforward, easily summarized roles you take on in clearly defined circumstances — and take off just as easily.

Others, though, turn out to be complex. At some point, you may stop writing and simply reflect, letting your train of associations continue.

As you describe each of your identities in a paragraph, key words — potential subjects — will appear in all of them. Some of the key words will be abstractions, words you don’t use in everyday talk@ perhaps courage, leadership or duty. Others will be mundane: daughter, parish, classroom. They will likely — but not always — be nouns. Whatever their part of speech, whether an everyday word or a high-sounding abstraction, all the key words will have one thing in common: Each will name something you feet strongly about. Maybe you didn’t know it before, but you do now.

Circle one key word in each paragraph. Connect the circles between paragraphs as connections — and their implications — become clear: Leadership as a father to your own daughter takes you into the realm of responsibility for the general future of our community — public duty to posterity — both of which are also addressed in your parish through teachings about morality and faith and in the academic classroom.

With luck, you will find out two important things, both of them the name in essence: at least ten subjects you care about, and at least ten subjects you can writh about. They will all be about yourself, true, but they will be about yourself in relation to the world. They will be the beginning of what The World & I magazine editor Lawrence Criner calls a “large, long view.”


Idea Blocks And Creative Bulldozers!

The frustration of “idea block” can paralyze even the best writers. But that’s no reason to give up. Here are 11 places to look for ideas. Best of all, they’ve been under your nose the whole time!

When my writing students find out that I submit about 50 queries a month, the first question they ask isn’t how much money I make or even how I handle rejection. They ask, “Don’t you ever run out of ideas?”

To writers who claim they can’t come up with good ideas, I say, “You aren’t paying attention.” Thousands of article ideas are all around you. Still at a loss? I’ll show you where to look.

Experience Counts

One of the first maxims budding writers hear is “write what you know.” You may feel you’ve been there and done that, but have you truly explored all of your personal expertise?

What kind of work experience have you had? Perhaps you’re an office manager in a small company, a sales representative, a secretary or an auto mechanic. Nothing to write home about, you say? Think again. The lessons you’ve learned, the contacts you’ve made and the insights you have can be turned into ideas–and sales.

For example, maybe your worst work nightmare is the customer complaint. Add a little research to what you’ve learned about handling irate customers and create a how-to article for a business or communications magazine.

Perhaps your employer is particularly careful about wastefulness. Your observations, along with an interview or two, might result in a great piece on office or industrial recycling.

Explore some of the changes taking place in your industry and report on an aspect of them for in-house or union publications. What’s really behind the paper shortage? Which middle-management positions are likely to get the ax?

On a more personal level, what are your interests and hobbies? Do you volunteer in your community? What aspect of your life do friends ask about? Your karate classes? Your 5-year-old triplets? The family reunion you’re planning at the site where your first ancestor in America landed?

When I started writing for publication, horses were my primary interest. As a family we often took horse pack trips into the wilderness and our daughters participated in horse shows. It made sense for me to start my career by writing horse-oriented articles.

I was already familiar with the popular horse magazines, but I now studied them with a fresh eye, looking for a void I could fill and found that no one else seemed to be writing from a really basic, practical standpoint.

So, from my own curiosity and frustration I wrote a piece featuring ideas for exhibiting and using horse show ribbons. I even traveled around and photographed creative home ribbon displays, and quilts and horse blankets that folks had made from their ribbons. That was the first article I wrote–and I sold it to Horse and Horseman. After that, I sold articles about how to make show chaps, easy horse show hairdos, what to expect when expecting a foal and wilderness riding tips to magazines such as Spur, Horse Illustrated and Western Horse. I even sold a humor piece about horse show mothers.

Expand Your Markets

A student in my business of writing class was publishing technical articles in architectural publications, but wanted to break into mainstream publications. I suggested she refocus. As an architect, she could offer expert home remodeling and decorating ideas, or provide plans and instruction for building a dog house or a patio deck. She could also promote her profession in college publications.

The point is this: Explore other levels of potential interest relating to your area of expertise.

Collect Interesting People

We all know people who are worth writing about, and most people love to be placed in the limelight whether it’s for personal or professional reasons. Make it a point to seek out these people in your life.

I have an artistically talented brother and sister-in-law-both of whom discovered their skills later in life. He creates cowboy sculptures from horseshoes and she does charming folkart painting. They make good copy and I make good money.

I once ordered a couple of African violet plants from a woman who sells these blooming beauties through mail order from her ranch home in Montana. I became interested in her story and interviewed her. Two articles resulted nettling me nearly $1,000. Cooperative Partners, a farm magazine, published a piece featuring Angelika and her at home business, and Lady’s Circle ran my article on how to grow African violets.

I recent was shopping at my friend’s grocery store, and noticed they had installed a new point of sale system. He told me about the company, and I called them. Within a month I was profiling them for a local business magazine, and made a quick $500 based on an hour conversation.

Look around your community for interesting stories. A few years ago, a local woman started a cemetery clean up program in her deceased father’s memory. She now has more than 200 volunteers hoeing weeds, planting flowers, replacing broken or missing markers–and I have something worth writing about.

Examine Your Beliefs

Share your convictions. Air your pet peeves. Whether your cause is big or small, if you’re passionate about it, write about it.

Maybe your cousin lives on the streets and you have a particular perspective about the homeless which you’d like to share with the world.

Perhaps it irritates you to see shoppers buying heavily packaged products and you want to educate them through your writing.

I’m concerned that we’re neglecting to instill in our kids a sense of responsibility. The articles I’ve generated from that concern–both essays and how-to pieces–have netted nearly $2,000 so far. I’ve sold articles about how to teach children a sense of responsibility to St. Anthony Messenger; teaching children responsibility through pet ownership to I Love Cats, Paint Horse Journal and Chronicle of a Horse; and pieces on preparing today’s children for tomorrow’s workplace to Kiwanis Magazine, Home Life and The World & I.

What Do You Want to Know?

Is there something about which you want more information? Interest a magazine editor in an article on that subject.

Maybe you want to know how to compost, or you’re looking for some good fund-raising ideas. Elicit an article assignment and learn as you write.

For example, I’ve received many chain letters and have always been fascinated by the concept: They ask you to send $1 or a recipe, for instance, and promise you’ll receive thousands of them in return.

When yet another chain letter arrived last year, I again wondered, “Can they really work?” I found an editor who was also interested in these answers and who was willing to pay me to research and write the piece.

One summer, I visited the Denver Zoo where I met up with a pair of Pallas cats. Fascinated by their uniqueness, I began researching this rare breed of wild cat. My effort resulted in a sale to Cats Magazine.


Writers, Race And Conflicts

I am trying to keep a black female writer from strangling a white male writer in my magazine workshop at Ohio University.

He has written a flawed piece of popular fiction from a black male viewpoint, and his apparent middle-class isolationism has resulted in a few misconceptions. First, the hero resembles a white from an upscale enclave and sounds like Al Jolson in blackface. Second, there is no real story, only a bunch of white and black folks interacting clumsily with each other. Third, the writer fumbles technique, using dialogue to convey exposition; which means, in some passages, his black man doesn’t even sound human. That stings.

Writers workshops like this take place all over the continent.

The theme, however, is good, if a bit ordinary: “We should learn to get along.”

The black woman writer misses the theme. What she sees is a white person perpetuating racial myths: His main character is phony, subhuman and stereotypical, she says. She is at wit’s end.

For ten minutes she has seethed in her seat, listening to white students discuss dialogue and diction and now violates her vow of silence. She questions how this guy can get off writing about a black male and adds: “What does he know about my people?”

It escapes her momentarily that she has written a science-fiction piece from the viewpoint of a German sailor, and that she is neither male, white, German or a sailor. But she is a skilled writer, so the mistakes aren’t as obvious, though a few stand out. For instance, some of her sailors behave like Nazis.

It occurs to me that the white student has a German surname.

Now nobody in the class is willing to critique his story. Why should anyone risk being called racist? After all, these are “someone’s people.”

I explain that the white student’s story has a good message, noting that what appears stereotypical is actually poor execution. I make my points carefully without faux pas and impress the entire class, I think.

Then it is the white writer’s turn to respond to my critique. He finds it amusing, he says, that I have gone to such lengths to pacify a complainer. Moreover, he believes his story is not nearly as flawed as I have indicated, and now the black student is about to strangle him.

I intervene. But first I allow myself a salvo about being diplomatic when I could have torn the story apart line by line, cliche by cliche. I’m not responding like a teacher now, but like an editor who has held back too much in the wake of bad work.

The black student wears an “I-told-you-so” smirk on her face. She says the white guy knows nothing about being black and rears up in her seat, ready to take on any comers. She says whites don’t know how blacks feel inside.

This is a deadly argument in a writing workshop. If the students believe it, a chain reaction occurs: Men can only write about men; women about women; old people about the elderly; young about youth; plumbers about plumbing; convicts about crime; victims about other victims; blacks about blacks; whites about whites.

But luck is with me. I tell her that we all are of one race, the human one, and that while I may not experience humiliation on a regular basis, I have in my life, and so can bring forth that emotion in a piece about racism.

“No, you can’t,” she says. All whites think of blacks in stereotypical ways, she alleges. “So do you.”

A silence sets in. She realizes she is in a white classroom and sits down, trying to fade away. Now the student with a German name is nodding with an “I-told-you-so” smirk on his face.

Someone is racist, and it isn’t he.

I walk over to the black woman and tell her that I don’t think about her as “black” or “African-American.” Well, perhaps I did when I was taking attendance at the beginning of the quarter. That much may be true. But now I see her as a writer and admire her because she loves words as much as I do.

We have that in common, I say.

She makes a face somewhere between anger and pain.

It is time to dismiss the class.

I am surprised when she comes to me afterward to apologize; she has learned something valuable, she says. How can she thank me? The white writer comes to me as well and demands an apology; he has not seen me react as an editor before, and my salvo about his story stings his ego. How can he rewrite ?

There is only one way the black writer can thank me and the white one can rewrite his story. We will meet again in my office, heal and go to work.

In the next workshop, he has a more plausible version of his story and she, a better science fiction about the German sailor.

We are writers, after all.


Finding Your Great Step Forward With Writing

Some writers can pinpoint a moment when they solved some mystery of writing. Eight bestselling authors speak of when and how their writing leapt forward.

I used to write children’s novels using a strictly self-imposed outline. It was as if I dared not move without that map in hand. But Viking editor Linda Zuckerman with whom I was working on The Gift of Sarah Barker, told me to let the story and the characters breathe, to trust that readers would go where the story and I led them. After that, I never again outlined ahead of time but let each novel grow organically from the characters and their situation. It has made me a much better novelist and–most surprising of all–I have had intricate plots that still work.

Jane Yolen Child of Faerie (Little, Brown)

The great leap forward began with my fourth novel, Private Screening. Although not a great commercial success at the time (it later became a bestseller when reissued as a paperback), the novel reflected a number of lessons I learned from my previous books.

Overall, I think Private Screening showed a new discipline and maturity, based on an assimilation of craft and an appreciation that the point of the story is to tell it rather than display the virtuosity of the writer in a way that becomes intrusive. With each book I continue to learn. As Hemingway once said, “We are all apprentices in a craft in which no one becomes a master.”

Richard North Patterson discovered the value of “economy”.

Richard North Patterson The Final Judgment (Knopf)

I’d read for years that “writing is rewriting.” Somehow I didn’t take it to heart. Perhaps this w as because I wrote a good deal of material for the cent-a-word pulp magazines that vanished in the 1950s; every the and of, every flabby adjective and adverb was worth an extra penny.

Then I fell under the influence of a couple of tough, experienced copy chiefs in two different advertising agencies (ad copywriting was my day job). They proceeded to reject my first drafts because of space requirements in a layout or radio commercial and, enduring considerable creative agony, I recast every piece of work until it was okayed.

At some moment I don’t remember, I suddenly realized the same cutting, slashing and rearranging might benefit my fiction. Lo and behold, it worked.

I hated those two copy chiefs at the time, but I thank them often, silently, for the lesson they taught.

John Jakes Homeland (Bantam) Writer’s Digest Advisory Board

I think I made a leap forward in 1957 when I first read Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and first understood that free verse was magical language that was not particularly connected to traditional prosody.

I think I made a leap forward in 1958 when I discovered that one has to invent one’s poetic biography and conceived of the idea of creating a personal mythology which would shape the body of my work.

I think I made a leap forward around 1968 when I began to understand that my best poems were written as personal narrative and often very long because of that

I think I made a leap forward in the ’80s some time when I discovered that my connection with the classical figure of Medea was at the center of my work.

I think I made a leap forward this year when I discovered that the epistolary form would lead me to a bigger, more extensive way of creating context for poetry. Poetry is largely an invisible art right now because there is no context for it. Poets don’t quite understand they must create one for themselves.

Usually, the leap occurred almost magically, or perhaps I should say naturally, because while the leap seemed to change my work quite a bit, I didn’t do anything different to make that change. I just started incorporating those newer concepts into my usual processes.

Diane Wakoski Medea the Sorceress (Black Sparrow) Writer’s Digest Advisory Board

When my work took that leap forward . . .it was connected to becoming the work. Is that too mystical? Well, creation is a process that, like love, cannot be defined. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, keep going. It will come, like love.

Jacqueline Briskin Rich Friends (Dell)

Having gone through the “respect for the unvarnished fact” of newspapering, then the remarkable “Theater of the Imagination” of radio drama, and the ubiquity of flus and TV, when Lawrence and [my late writing partner Robert E.] Lee plays arrived on Broadway, our work leapt eons forward, in terms of respect for the written and spoken word, and honors for dramatists.

Jerome Lawrence Inherit the Wind Writer’s Digest Advisory Board

I occasionally have a leap forward, soon followed by a leap backward. I guess the leap forward I’ve made in recent times is tapping into deeper emotions in some of my comic writings. I feel enormously successful when this works. Then, of course, comes the leap backward.

Patrick F. McManus The Grasshopper Trap (Henry Holt)

I think it has been steady-as-you-go-uphill sort of thing. Not a mountain but a good-sized hill and the higher I climb, the higher I want to go. One always smells that clean, fresh air at the top, and one is always aware of the bottle of vintage ’97 wine in the pack. So we push on to the top so that we can enjoy the view and share a lovely red with our friends.


Questions To Ask When The Writer’s Block Creeps

Often, when a story seems to be going nowhere, it’s because the author hasn’t answered the following questions:

* Whose story are you telling? You must be able to answer the question before beginning your story. You’ll start by listing physical, mental, historical and moral facts about your protagonist. But fiction demands that you go beyond facts. You need to dig deeper–you need reasons and feelings.

Take hair color. You’ve decided that your character, Alice, is a redhead. Why? If you answer “because I like red-heads,” you’re already off the track. You’re telling me something about yourself, not about Alice. Look to Alice’s life for the answer.

It makes a big difference in your story whether Alice’s hair is red because she inherited the family tendency toward auburn locks, or because she has a blotchy dye job.

Once you’ve found why Alice is a redhead, ask, “How does she feel about that fact and the reasons behind it?” Auburn Alice may hate her silky curls because men see her hair, not her intelligence. Blotchy Alice may love her dye job because she thinks it makes her boyfriend pay attention to her. Until you know how Alice feels, you don’t know Alice, and you can’t tell her story. Learn the why behind every fact on your list, and always ask, “How does Alice feel about that?”

You will not present all this information to your readers, but your research will allow you to move forward knowing exactly how Alice will face each adventure, what emotions fuel her journey, and what skills she has for overcoming each mishap. Readers sense this depth and begin to think of Alice as a real person. And they will stay with your story as you ask the second important question:

* What does Alice want? Your research has shown that Alice, like all people, wants many things. Since a short story is limited in length and specific in focus, it must be aimed at the appropriate market. If you’ve targeted religious magazines for this story, you’ll choose a different goal for Alice than if you’ve targeted romance markets.

Still, Alice may have several wants suitable for your market. To choose a goal that clearly suggests the direction your story will take, look into Alice’s life for a desire that engages emotions common to most people.

If Blotchy Alice wishes only to experiment with hair colors, she can get the facts at the nearest cosmetic counter; the problem is trivial, the solution simple. However, if Alice is coloring her hair in an attempt to attract the only boy she ever liked, her need touches a basic human desire: to be loved by the beloved. You could also ask what Alice’s job has to do with her life? As an example, if she is a clerk that works at the retail point of sale, is this her only ambition? Does she like working in the retail business, or is there some inner dream that she is working towards?

Once you know what Alice wants, ask, “How deep is this want? How far would she go to get what she wants? Is she willing to change and grow? Is she capable of growth? What actions would she take? Whom would her actions threaten or offend?” With these answers in hand, you’re ready for the next question about Alice:

* Why can’t Alice have what she wants? You already know the interior obstacles facing Alice. Now, list the exterior obstacles. At this point, the other characters in your story will emerge.

Beware: This spot in your story-plan is dangerous. Minor characters, especially villains, can seduce an author and take over the story. Alice’s rival for her boyfriend must be as real as Alice, but this is not the rival’s story. She must not steal the author’s, or the reader’s, allegiance from Alice.

Be sure that each minor character belongs in the story. Then keep on track by asking, “How does this character prevent Alice from reaching her goal?”

Stay out of the minor characters’ minds. You will know their thoughts, but you must show only their actions and words. Let Alice make the mental responses.

The interplay between Alice and the minor characters creates action and tension. Action is the plot’s movement toward the solution of the character’s problem. Tension adds excitement to action. Plan for tension in your story by listing how Alice moves toward her goal and how she is detoured. Then move forward by asking:

* How does Alice get what she wants? We all resist change, but if Alice is to reach her goal, she must change more than her hair color. What crisis will cause her to grow? What skills will she gain? What will she learn about her rival, her boyfriend and herself?

Once you have a good idea of what will happen to Alice, you need to answer this question:

* Where does this story happen? Why is the story set here? How does the setting affect Alice, the action, the tension? How does the setting look, smell, taste, sound and feel? Now you’re almost ready to write. Answer one final question before you begin:

* What is the moral of this story? Ask this question so you can weave the answer into your story subtly, inviting the reader’s understanding, instead of imposing the moral by tacking it on the end.

Creating scenes that allow you and your readers to move into Alice’s life and travel with her until she reaches her goal is the best part of writing. If you answer these questions ahead of time, you’ll enjoy the trip.


Eight Ways To Avoid Manuscript Rejection

So what are the elements in an opening that will help a novel pass editorial muster? The ones I offer fall entirely under the caveat I issued in this series’ introductory column: there are no ironclad rules. Any number of books successfully break the conventions of fiction.

1. Quickly orient the reader. An effective opening will follow the rules of journalism and tell the reader, as soon as possible, who, what, why, when, and where. Michael Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood begins: “1935. Constantine, eight years old, was working in his father’s garden and thinking about his own garden, a square of powdered granite he had staked out and combed into rows at the top of his family’s land.”

2. Drop the reader right into the story. Stephen McCauley’s The Easy Way Out opens: “Four and a half months before his wedding, my younger brother called me from Chicago at one in the morning.” McCauley pops the reader into dramatic hot water with his very first line.

3. Lay out the problem or situation for the reader. Jenifer Levin’s The Sea of Light opens: “Rescue helicopters hovered over the water like great metal dragonflies. Below bobbed fragments of the 747 that had gone down more than two days ago, filled to capacity and carrying with it all the members of Southern University’s top-ranked NCAA Division I swim team. No one expected survivors.” A single paragraph of perfect clarity.

4. Establish tone immediately. Penny Mickelbury’s Night Songs opens: “High heels click-racked on the cracked pavement – stiletto, spike, the highest-of-the-high heels – extensions of long shapely legs made longer by the abbreviated and skin-tight black spandex dress. The woman was what she appeared to be: hooker, whore, prostitute, trick baby, shady lady, bitch.” Right away, the reader feels the meanness of a city street and the harshness of a woman’s life.

5. Intrigue the reader at opening. Who among us could read the opening lines to Michael Nava’s The Death of Friends and close the book? “I woke to find the bed shaking. Somewhere in the house, glass came crashing down, and on the street car alarms went off and dogs wailed.”

6. Heed the rule “Show, don’t tell.” Some of the best novels around open with a sustained narrative sequence, but most authors introduce dialogue within a few pages. Narrative that goes on for many pages is a risk, and must be unusually compelling to engage the reader. The basic dramatic unit of a novel has never changed: it is scene and dialogue, with narrative acting as a bridge.

7. Choose the correct point at which to begin. “Begin at the beginning!” we command our friends when they relate a story in a jumble of details. This seems to be the most logical rule of storytelling, but more often than not it does not work in a novel. Depending on the nature of the dramatic material, a straight-line story can put the reader to sleep before the author gets to the real meat of the plot. In my first novel, Curious Wine, I tried many openings to explain the meeting of my two major characters in a mountain cabin, but all of them seemed static. When I simply had the two meet on page one, and in subsequent pages used dialogue and other devices to elucidate what led them to this cabin and to their fateful meeting, the novel acquired its best design.

8. For classic situations, use classic openings. So what is a classic situation? The central character is either moving into an important time of life or facing a crisis. And what is the classic opening? One that places the reader as close to the ending of the story as dramatically possible – by opening such a story at the crux of the situation or crisis (as I did in Curious Wine) and working out (and back) from there.