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.
For the past year and a half, I have been drafting essays that will eventually be part of my final thesis project. Well, that “eventually” is coming up quickly. I have about a month to finish my thesis so I can graduate with my Master’s degree in May, and even with all the careful planning, the meticulous outlines, and the copious amount of Post-It Notes on my wall, I still feel like I have a big challenge ahead when it comes to organization.
All writers have encountered that “moment.” For me, it’s when I start up my old printer and get out my scissors, laying out pieces of an essay on my bed, searching for a stronger scaffold to hold my words. For others, this might be the moments where you find yourself with ten or more Word documents open, or a never-ending line of search tabs on your web browser. For this Writerly Roundup, I sought out advice from writers about order and attention to detail to shed some insight into my own organization process, and hopefully yours, too.
Art of the Opening: Close Reading I, Suzanne Grove (@SuzanneGrove), Craft Literary
In this article, Grove explores two short fiction openings: “Family Physics” by Catherine Lacey and “Orientation Week” by Natalie Cornell. Grove examines the first 100 words or so of each piece, and answers the question: Why is this so good? In the process, she offers some general writing advice for those of us struggling to “hook” our readers in. She writes this about Lacey’s work,
During all this time that Lacey has been using elements like tone and hook and tension and style to craft a powerful opening, she’s also been working on characterization. We’re never told directly how our narrator feels about all of this. We’re not given her name or her age or her initial location—Lacey doesn’t tell us about the job this woman quit or the color of her hair or what kinds of books do or do not rest on her nightstand. We don’t know whether she went to trade school or inherited generational wealth or likes dogs. And yet, we’ve begun to know her. We know that she calls her mother by her first name, the state she chooses to run away to, the litany of endings she’s triggered in her own life.
It’s those endings that push me to keep reading.
Here, Grove establishes the importance of building tension and suspense in the opening. Often, it’s not enough to simply describe who the characters are, or where they are, but rather, it often works well to begin with some element of conflict that draws the reader into the rest of the writing. I appreciate how Grove emphasizes that good characters are developed not through description alone, but through their relationships and decisions. Lacey’s story is successful, as Grove notes, because she is able to set up the main character’s relationships within the first hundred opening lines. Craft has several essays on the art of opening lines, which can be discovered here.
Lydia Fakundiny and the Art of the Essay, Nicole Graev Lipson (@NicoleGLipson), Brevity’s Blog
As an English student at Cornell, Lipson enrolled in a class called “The Art of the Essay”, taught by Lydia Fakundiny. The class happened at a precious time for Lipson, as many parts of her life were changing or unraveling. When Fakundiny took Lipson’s writing seriously and offered encouragement, as she writes in this blog post, Lipson not only felt hopeful about her path as a writer, but also began to think deeply about “The Art of the Essay.” She writes,
Lydia showed us what an essay could be: the journey of the mind pushing, on paper, through uncertainty. She read to us from the masters—Baldwin, Woolf, Didion, Walker—and their words passing through her took on profound urgency. I listened closer than I’d known one could listen, hitching my way on these words to a place where things made sense.
Meaning, I learned, had an architecture. A sentence, depending how it was built, could crack the heart open like a cathedral door, or leave it numb as a concrete cell.
I appreciate the way Lipson weaves her personal story into advice about craft. More precisely, I appreciate how she compares the essay to “architecture.” She emphasizes the point the form doesn’t just hold the meaning, form informs, or adds to meaning, just as equally, if not more, than the sentiments themselves. This story warms my heart: all writers need that one person who encourages them at just the right time. But Lipson didn’t just get encouragement; she also gained a lifelong lens for craft, and I’m so glad she shared it on Brevity‘s blog.
Anna North on Reimagining a Wild West… That’s Good to Mothers, Jacke Wilson, Literary Hub
This last article I’d like to share with you this month isn’t so much on the topic of organization and writing, but it’s too good not to share. In this podcast, Jacke Wilson interviews Anna North about her new novel, Outlawed, “a riveting adventure story of a fugitive girl, a mysterious gang of robbers, and their dangerous mission to transform the Wild West.” What follows is a fascinating discussion about the Western genre, and how, in recent years, fiction writers have adapted and changed the tropes of the West. North says this about her novel:
So while this is a society that has a lot of really deep-seated problems and a lot of really deep-seated sins, for lack of a better word, it is also one that treats pregnant people with respect that I think we don’t actually treat pregnant people with in the United States. It’s a small moment, but there’s a moment in the book when a character’s advised that if she is pregnant, even if she’s not married or even if the father of her child is having an affair with her, that he’ll have to support her, and the community will come around her and support her because they just value children that much, and they’re definitely going to take care of her no matter what.
I really love when novelists adapt history for the better of women, but the fact that North focuses on mothers in particular really intrigued me, and I hope it intrigues you too. Yes, I am in the depths of putting the finishing touches on my thesis, and I definitely need to focus, but perhaps a break reading Outlawed will recharge my mind and spark some new twists and turns.
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!