Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
How to Start a Story: 9 Tips From Our Editors, Reedsy (@ReedsyHQ)
The editors at Reedsy want to help you start your story the right way, the way that sucks a reader in and keeps them turning pages. So they all got together and collected a handful of tips for anyone who’s ever struggled with that difficult opener. The first suggestion is my favorite:
Start with the unexpected. Think of the opening to “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, or Iain Banks’, The Crow Road, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”. Of course, your opening doesn’t have to be as outrageous as these, but always aim for the unusual. In other words: think of how people will be expecting the book to start, then go in another direction.
Maybe you’ll start with an image, a la Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. Start with action, as Golding does in Lord of the Flies. Or start with something new:
Consider these two lines:
1) “I’m sitting writing this at my desk.”
2) “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
Which line makes you want to read on? I’d hazard a guess that it’s probably the sentence about being perched at a sink — the opening line to one of my favourite novels, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Say something in your first few sentences that hasn’t often been said before!
I’ll wager that you’ve heard some of these suggestions, but it’s quite helpful to have the list—complete with examples and the books in which they’re found—handy when you’re staring down the white page.
Write Like You’re Giving Birth, Sandra A. Miller (@WriterSandraM), Brevity’s Blog
Sandra Miller’s name has appeared in Literary Mama before. In this Brevity blog, she draws the parallel between writing and giving birth. She recalls a difficult delivery with her son and the excruciating back labor she endured. When it was time to push, Miller hesitated.
But instead of pushing, I stopped. I resisted. I clenched at every contraction, stealing myself against the pain that felt like a reckless trucker was driving his semi through my uterus. “Push into the pain,” the British midwife urged in a high, clipped I know best voice that left no room for compromise. “When it feels the worst, Sandra, that’s when you must push the hardest.”
Miller’s baby was in distress, and during labor she had no choice but to push through the pain to save her child’s life. This is writing, sometimes. There will come a day when we find ourselves faced with a memory that haunts us, a dark place that tries to rise to the surface when we write only to be squashed down by our fear of addressing it. When we ignore this darkness, we let it fester. Miller advises us to dig into that awful pain.
Write into the pain, I tell my students. You have to feel it wracking your body like a baby that will die if you don’t push now. Sit with each scene until it spins through every pain receptor and is ready to pull you down and drag you back and forth through your longest night, again and again and again.
Motherhood, like writing, is painful. And yet, from this pain comes beauty: our best writing is often a labor of agony and love.
Ten Rules of Writing, Amitava Kumar (@amitavakumar), Literary Hub
I found this older piece from Kumar, author of the essay collection Lunch with a Bigot, on Literary Hub. I know that there are a lot of to-do and not-to-do writing lists out there. I see them everywhere, and I share many of them with you. But I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t take the time to read lists because there’s always something that we as writers need to hear on any given day. For example, today I am overbooked and wishing I had fewer commitments, none of which will benefit my own writing. Thus, Kumar reminds me:
Learn to say no. The friendly editor who asks for a review or an essay. Even the friend who is editing an anthology. Say no if it takes you away from the writing you want to do. My children are small and don’t take no for an answer, but everyone who is older is pretty understanding. And if they’re understanding, they’ll know that for you occasional drinks or dinner together are more acceptable distractions.
I believe that the writing universe is always sending us messages. I see them pop up with almost creepy regularity, hinting at something I’m struggling with. So, just as Kumar’s above suggestion smacks me upside my head when I need to hear it, he then hits me with this one, too:
Finish one thing before taking up another. Keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas for any future book, but complete the one you are working on first. This rule has been useful to me. I followed it after seeing it on top of the list of Henry Miller’s “Commandments.” It has been more difficult to follow another of Miller’s rules: “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.”
Writing and motherhood often go hand-in-hand, but just as often they clash. Sometimes, balancing writing, work, and parenthood feels like trying to stuff an octopus into a tin can. Kumar reminds us in his piece that “Annie Dillard wrote, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’” Perhaps it’s time I put down my octopus.
Cheryl Strayed Was $85,000 in Debt When Her Memoir Wild Got Published, Vulture Editors (@vulture), Vulture
I admit to a healthy share of voyeurism as I share this particular piece for January’s Writerly Roundup. It’s not a craft essay but an interview with Cheryl Strayed about her life before and after Wild. At first, I dismissed it as click-bait fluff, but aren’t we always curious about such things? Don’t we secretly want to know how much money a best-selling author makes, and what her life is like? In this interview, Strayed candidly talks about money, and why a writer’s income is such a taboo subject.
I feel strongly that we’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money. There’s no other job in the world where you get your master’s degree in that field and you’re like, Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million! We don’t have any standards in that way, and we probably never will. There will always be such a wide range of what writers are paid, but at least we could give each other information.
As it turns out, Strayed was deeply in debt—to the tune of $85,000—when she sold Wild. She used the money to get out of debt and to pay student loans. She also talks about some of the mechanics of the publishing industry: how and when a writer gets paid. Moreover, she looks back on her writing journey and what she’s learned:
If you want to be famous, don’t be a writer. When I was first thinking of myself as a writer back in my teens, the shorthand for that was fame. Once you let go of that fame thing, it’s the first step in really being able to focus on doing good work. Because you can’t fake it. That’s the deal with writing. You can’t fake it. You read an Alice Munro story—and it’s there or it’s not, you know? So I let that go pretty early on.
This interview doesn’t offer literary advice, but it does bring the reality of a successful writer’s life into sharp relief, separating out the glamor from the hard work and struggle. I think it’s an important look into a world most of us aren’t familiar with.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!