If you’re writing a novel or a memoir, the following exercise might be helpful. It came up recently while I was working with a Fresh Pond writer on his memoir. This writer was really trying to nail the opening chapter, and so I suggested that he select five of his favorite memoirs (published by others) and analyze the first 15 pages.
Lately, I’ve become preoccupied with story beginnings. I blame a writer’s conference I went to where I had to turn in the first 250 words of a short story. I was amazed at how little I had conveyed in those 250 words. (I wrote a post about it, which you can read if you want to called “Beginnings, the First 250 Words.”) Last week, I submitted a short story for the first time to a literary journal. As part of the online submission process, I had to copy and paste the first 300 words of my story into the form, along with the title and my name and then attach the word document. I’m guessing that the readers read the first 300 words and if the story pulls them in, they’ll open up the attachment.
Now I’m reading Stein on Writing by former literary agent Sol Stein. In the chapter where he talks about beginnings, he focuses his discussion on the first sentence. About it, Stein asks: Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Muse & the Marketplace writers conference in Boston, organized by Grub Street. Among the many sessions I attended, one called “Literary Idol” got me thinking about beginnings. In this unconventional session, writers in the audience were invited to submit, anonymously, the first 250 words of their short story or novel. Actor Alessandro Nivola randomly selected the submissions from a box and then read the first page out loud. A panel of judges, consisting of the authors Anita Shreve, Mameve Medwed, Elinor Lipman and Stephen McCauley listened and then commented, sometimes raising a hand, if they heard something “wrong,” like a cliché. If four hands went up, the actor stopped reading completely.
The thing that struck me was how many stories started off with a BIG FAT nothing. Frequently, the opening scenes being read (including mine!), had just one person walking or thinking or sitting or musing. This is not the stuff of fictional drama.