Bob Gillen on Storytelling

Tag: writing (Page 1 of 6)

You don’t get to skip to happily ever after

“I understand small moments of joy on a page, like a slave receiving a Christmas present, because I can place those stories into a broad landscape and see them as the exception, not the norm. I knew what it would be like to be black today because I learned what it was like to be black yesterday through books that respected my identity and recognized my intellectual capacity even in elementary school.”

writer Sarah Hannah Gomez

Sarah Hannah Gomez
Credit: Emma Mendenhall

So writes Sarah Hannah Gómez  in the School Library Journal.

Gómez, who is bi-racial, talks about absorbing stories of slavery, prejudice, disenfranchisement as a child and a young reader.

“It was made clear to me that even fictional narratives were based on painful truths, and there was an enduring heritage of prejudice and disenfranchisement that would affect my life anytime I left the house. What good would it do me to have no understanding of where it came from? You could say this is a heavy weight to place on a child’s shoulders, but you have to start lifting weights if you ever want to lift heavier ones.”

Gómez, a former librarian, studies middle grade and YA books. “My not-so-secret dream job,” she says on her web page, “is to work in TV development and turn the best middle grade and YA into the best (and diverse) TV shows and miniseries. In the meantime, I’m getting a PhD in that stuff because I’m good at racking up degrees.

“People whose cultural memory includes oppression, genocide, or disenfranchisement don’t have the luxury of avoiding those topics with their children, because they have lasting effects into today. It doesn’t lead to raising victims, but informed citizens.

“You have to earn hopeful stories about horrifying events, and you can only see what hope means if the horrors lurking nearby are visible. You don’t get to skip to happily ever after. You don’t get to show the sweet without the bitter.”

Find her on twitter: @shgmclicious

“A novelist is someone who takes you on a journey.”

journey into space and timeI saw this quote from iAuthor on Twitter today. “A novelist is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time” — Susan Sontag ()

It reminds me of an earlier post of mine inspired by the famed Ray Bradbury at a book signing I attended in 2009. Someone had asked him what he thought the future held for our young generation. “He raised himself up in his wheelchair, his eyes sparkling, and almost cried out, ‘We should go back to the moon! Go on to Mars, with the moon as a base camp. Then go on to Alpha Centauri.’”

A journey through space and time, whether literally or in a novelist’s words. That’s what creating story is all about.


Writers, go for a walk

“Just take a hike in the woods or a walk in the park. No prescription necessary.” Good advice for anyone. Important for writers.

Woods trailJason Mark’s book review from The New York Times: “That’s the proposition of Florence Williams’s fascinating The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. We suffer from an ‘epidemic dislocation from the outdoors,’ Williams writes, and it’s destructive to our mental and physical health. The therapy is straightforward. ‘The more nature, the better you feel.’”

Colleen M. Story’s Writing and Wellness blog promotes the benefits of walking for writers. “The Art of Wandering by Merlin Coverly looks at the long history of writers who were also avid walkers, with the idea that the two are one and the same—a trip into the inner self.”

Story says, “…walking remains one of the few ways we can actually leave the real world and all its concerns behind us. There’s something about the meditative motion of one foot in front of the other that allows the mind and body to relax and drift where it will.”

Hemingway wrote, “It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.”

Yesterday I enjoyed a walk, and found the opening chapter for my next book. It works!

walking on the beach


Good dialogue can do many things

I’m reading Norman Mailer‘s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. About 25% of the way in, and I’m finding it a very slow read. My go-to book has always been a thriller, a mystery, a detective story. Action, something needing resolution. And dialogue.

Credit: Mary Richmond

Credit: Mary Richmond

Mailer’s novel is light on dialogue. Pages and pages of first-person POV. The protagonist drives to a patch of earth on Cape Cod, on a bleak November day. “I liked the dull green of the dune grass and the pale gold of the weeds, and in that late autumn panorama when the beef’s blood and burnt orange are out of the leaves, the colors came down to gray and green and brown, but with what a play between! My eye used to find a dance of hues…”

Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard

Contrast that with Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for good writing. Rule #9: Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Leonard relied on the strength of dialogue to carry his stories.  To paraphrase: Dialogue is showing. It’s not telling. Readers are in a scene and this is one reason it can be so effective and engaging. Good dialogue can do many things. Move a story forward. Reveal character.

Both men are renowned writers. I lean towards the lean.



An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story

Writer Stephen King says, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

He says further: “Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both.”

That perfectly crafted and inviting opening sentence is something that emerges in revision

An effective opening line won’t happen right away. King says, “That perfectly crafted and inviting opening sentence is something that emerges in revision, which can be where the bulk of a writer’s work happens.”

This advice on writing opening sentences comes from Open Culture in an article highlighting Stephen King’s 20 rules for writers.

Elsewhere, in an interview with Atlantic magazine, King said, “A book won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose — the story has got to be there, and that’s the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice — it’s the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there’s incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.”

book coverMy favorite opening line comes from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Yes, I want to know about this!

Isn’t that what we writers want? A reader who begins to listen. Make your beginnings work.

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