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.
WHERE TO BEGIN: An Investigation into First Lines, Michael Overa, Cleaver Magazine
If there’s one moment when you absolutely must grab your reader’s attention and interest, it’s in the first line of your work. In this craft essay, Michael Overa takes a look at how the first line enhances the story.
As a reader I’m interested in what these first lines contribute to the story itself; as a writer, I’m interested in how to replicate these lines. The primary function of a first line – especially a good one – seems to be put the story into motion, forecast the ending, or encapsulate the theme.
Overa helpfully dissects a few examples of first lines, showing us how they can go wrong and how they can go right. How relevant to the story is the phrasing? Does it mislead the reader? Does it predict the ending, and does the author want it to do so? Overa himself “reverse engineers” his stories, which highlights the importance of that first line. He leaves us with some helpful thoughts on craft:
Ultimately, it seems that what makes a line memorable is not that it is particularly poetic, but that it operates on some sort of deeper level within the story as a whole. The line becomes memorable because it is integral to our understanding of the structure and themes of the story.
How do you construct your opening line? Let us know in the comments.
BEST READER, WORST ENEMY , Claire Rudy Foster (@clair_rudy), Cleaver Magazine
Also from Cleaver Magazine, Claire Rudy Foster wants you to think about your readers—the “good” kind and the “bad” kind. Moreover, she wants you to redefine “good” and “bad” in this context. Your best reader and your worst enemy are both out there, considering your book, and each can offer you something of value.
Of our worst enemy, Foster advises us to use that criticism to better our writing:
My writing should fend off the criticism of my enemy as well as possible. It should be impervious to mockery, difficult to predict, and satisfying even to someone who doesn’t like it. Ultimate fulfillment is hearing “Well, I usually dislike this kind of thing, but it was really well done.” Excellence of craft will make you invincible.
Of our best reader, Foster reminds us not to court our fans:
Beware the kind of love you think you want. You are a writer, and your job is to make good stories. You aren’t a marketer. Don’t write because you want to grow your following or build your brand. Doing these things will weaken your writing because they make you less of a writer.
I admit I don’t think about my audience in these specific ways very often. Stephen King advised writers that there is no traditional audience out there. To take a moment to get into our specific readers’ heads—those who will adore our work and those who will scoff at it—is indeed a valuable exercise. This essay is worth your time.
The Hybrid Writer’s Life (Post-MFA), Paige Sullivan (@BPaigeSullivan), Brevity’s Blog
Paige Sullivan must be inside my head. As a baby bird fresh from the MFA nest with an unclear future, I took comfort in her essay about the hybrid life of the writer who doesn’t pursue a career in academia. She recalls her grad school slush pile job and how she took note of the submissions that came from writers who weren’t academics:
As I soon came to the conclusion that the academic career path was not the career path for me, I became more and more fascinated with these kinds of writers: the ones who had other interests and obligations outside the typical gamut of writing/literature/ composition/teaching/adjuncting. The lawyers and hairdressers and rabbit enthusiasts who found room in their lives to make art, too.
Academia is a tough market right now, and when we’re in the thick of an MFA program, it can be easy to forget that there are myriad writers out there who have day jobs, hobbies, and passions that have nothing to do with writing. It’s a shame we can’t all be paid for our writing skills, Sullivan says, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
Yes, in a perfect world, poets would have a salary commensurate with experience and a nice benefits package. But our art isn’t (always) for hire, and I can’t say that that really bothers me. On the contrary, I think the hybridity of identities and skills working writers claim can be mutually fruitful. I think good writers should likely be passionate about the world around them to remain passionate about art.
I am glad for Sullivan’s reminder that there’s nothing wrong with a different kind of writing life.
Storyville: When to Be Conventional, and When to Be Weird, Richard Thomas (@wickerkat), LitReactor
Richard Thomas spent a long time trying to get his second novel published. In this essay, he shares his bumpy journey, in particular the advice he received from an editor about a pivotal scene that needed a change. It turns out that the editor knew his stuff, and Thomas reflects back on why he originally wrote the scene the way he did and how we can maintain our unique voices while still crafting well-written stories.
Quite often when I write novels, or short stories, I take familiar territory and try to make it my own—different, unique, and special. But what exactly does that mean? Where is the intersection between weird and conventional, between expected and surprising? We make choices all along the way, but it always has to serve the story.
Thomas helpfully offers a list of questions writers may consider when they seek to distinguish the line between weird and conventional. Does the story make sense? Does it fit the character? Is it innovative? Are you reading the story as the author or as the reader? These are questions we need to pause and think about as we write a manuscript and when we edit one, the most important of which is: Do we care about the people in the story?
So the next time you sit down to write that epic tome, or even just a bit of flash fiction, don’t hesitate to be weird, to take chances, to raise the stakes, and have your characters risk more—but also look at the big picture, and ask yourself if it all works together. The journey is important, but so is the result.
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!