Authors on Craft: Martha Freeman on How to Start

170109 effieStart with the day that’s different.

That bit of advice comes from a writer’s workshop given by Stephanie Gordon and Judith Ross Enderle, authors of School Stinks, Six Sleepy Sheep, and my family’s favorite, Two Badd Babies, among many others. I’m sure Stephanie and Judith offered tons of tips at that workshop, but the day that’s different is the one that stuck with me, one I’ve since interpreted thus:

Nix the elaborate scenery and set-up.

Get your plot moving on Page 1!

An outstanding example of how this is done is the opening of Carnegie Medal-winner Anne Fine’s, The True Story of Christmas:

Perhaps you’d care to hear my side of the story? Here am I, Ralph William Mountfield, banished to my room on Christmas Day with no one even giving me a chance to explain.

Fine literally starts with the day that’s different, and the day is Christmas. In fact, the efficiency she displays would make a USA Today editor proud. Fine sets the hook – who can resist reading on to find out why Ralph has been banished, the poor kid? She also sets the humorous tone, reveals something about Ralph’s querulous nature, and establishes that Ralph will be writing recent history. All that in 33 words.

The opening of Susan Vaught’s Edgar Award winner, Footer Davis Probably is Crazy, another model of efficiency, not only starts with the day that’s different, it starts with a bang:

The day my mother exploded a copperhead snake with an elephant gun. I decided I was genetically destined to become either a felon or a big-game hunter. That was good, since I had already tried being a ballerina, a poet, an artist and a musician, and I sucked at all of those.

Like Fine’s opening, this one engages curiosity while at the same time squeezing a back story and characterization into a few power-packed lines.

In 25 years since I attended Stephanie and Judith’s workshop, I have written some 30 books, always trying to follow their advice. My latest, Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question, begins like this:

Effie Starr Zook looked out the bedroom window, and what she saw made her heart go thud.  There in the pen with Alfred the Goat stood a little boy.

In this case, the reader gets no back story. He or she might infer the rural setting, but otherwise there’s not much. Who is Effie anyway? Who, for that matter, is the boy? What’s clear is you’ve got a child in jeopardy – a child whose survival turns out to be important to the story. (So, for that matter, is the goat’s.)

In the years since that writers’ workshop, smart phones and tablets have become ubiquitous, doing nothing to improve our species’ collective attention-span. Today getting to the point and engaging the reader is more imperative than ever. (Think Twitter.) Sure, if your last name is Tolstoy or Melville or even Knausgaard, you might be able to get away with a leisurely approach. For us mere mortals, though, starting with the day that’s different is the best way to ensure the reader turns the page.

2014 Martha signing books.jpgMartha Freeman is the author of some 30 books for children, including The Chickadee Court mysteries, the Secret Cookie Club series and, Strudel’s Forever Home. New this spring is Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question.

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How To Get Published In Three Easy Steps, a tone poem in words

Who are you people and what do you want? Hello? Hello? Is this thing on? You’re looking for writing advice. You want to know the secret handshake so you can get an agent. You want to read that one missing thing that will make the big difference so you can get the thing (the job, the publishing deal, the inspiration to get through the day). You need to know how to write an effective query letter. You want to know what the fuck a query letter is. Your writing buddy said that blogger was funny. It’s a gay thing or feminist or lefty liberal crunchy granola. It’s all about the coffee. You’re my cousin. My best friend. A person from my MFA program. What do you want? Ask me something. Tell me something.

I’m writing a book. It’s a story about a girl. It’s about me. It’s about my kids. It’s about my town. It’s not really about me. The writing is tight. The story is loose. It’s about not fitting in. The people in my life who think they’re in my book, aren’t. It’s not really about my kids either. It’s all made up. It’s all very true. Writing dialogue is fun. I used to be a poet. I’m thinking about adding dragons. I’m kind of didactic. (I’m working on it.) Maybe I’ll add recipes. I write in sprints. I write in scenes. I don’t know how to write right. Hello? Are you still here? Are you still reading?

How do you define yourself? Because I’m so very many things. I contain multitudes. You don’t know me. I’m not your fucking mother. I’m not the answer to your dreams. I love you, fellow traveler. Are you totally human? Being invisible is comfortable. Why can’t you see me? I know you wanted publishing advice. Existential angst spoken here today. So much muchness. Writers need to write. Just write. The rest is dross.

Tell me a story. Write me poetry. Make a comment. Is anybody out there? What do you want from me? Who are you, anyway?

 

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Guest Blabbermouth: Passover Edition by Ruth Horowitz

So Linda invited me to write a post about Passover. But this is a blog about writing and publishing, and why should this post be different from all other posts?

The central ritual of Passover is the Seder, and the basic point of the Seder is to tell a story. And one of the reasons the Seder has lasted so long and remains so popular is that it does its job really well – so well, in fact, that you don’t have to be Jewish to learn something about storytelling from the way the Seder works.

  1. Engage the senses. The Seder is a multisensory experience. We see the flames of the candles. We hear stories and songs. We smell the delicious food. We taste – and how – the bitter, the sweet the salty. We feel the brittle matzo breaking, the warm water when we wash our hands, the cool night air when we open the door to welcome Elijah, the soft pillow at our back. Good storytelling engages the reader’s senses to pull her into the action.
  1. Engage the mind. The Seder starts with questions and moves on to answers that present new questions, and encourages discussion and debate. Good storytelling leaves room for the reader to think for himself. The best stories leave the reader still thinking.
  1. Encourage empathy. While the Seder tells the Exodus story, it explicitly acknowledges the all-too-numerous stories of oppressed people through the centuries and across the world. Good storytelling helps us see other’s stories as our own.
  1. Entertain. For all their seriousness, Seders are essentially fun. They include wine, silly songs, and a game of hide and seek – and that’s just what’s in the “official” program. Good storytelling entertains.

I could go on all night, but I can tell you’re getting hungry, so I’ll stop at four. Four children, four questions, four cups of wine – four is a good number for Passover. Happy Passover, and happy storytelling!

Ruth Horowitz writes for both children and adults. She is the author of six children’s books, including Are We Still Friends coverARE WE STILL FRIENDS (Scholastic, 2017) illustrated by Blanca Gomez. Horowitz’s book CRAB MOON (Candlewick, 2000 & 2004), was listed as one of the 10 best children’ssearch books of 2000 by the New York Times and was named an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children. Find her online at ruthhorowitz.comgivinguptheghost.com, and @RuthHorowitz.

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