One of the questions I hear frequently from aspiring writers is, “How do I start a story?” Even seasoned writers have days when the story won’t come. Talking to a reporter for Interview Magazine in 1995, Martin Amis said of novel-writing, “If I come up against a brick wall, I’ll just go and play snooker or something or sleep on it, and my subconscious will fix it for me.” Good advice, for sure. But if snooker and the subconscious don’t do it for you, here are a few tips to get you going.
- You can begin “in medias res,” or in the middle of the action. When you’re telling a friend a story, you rarely begin with, “I was born in such-and-such hospital in such-and-such city.” Rather, you jump forward to the exciting part, the middle of the action of your own life. “I walked into the old movie theatre on Amsterdam Avenue and saw him standing there, holding a strange package.”
- You can begin with a character in a strange or tense situation (Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach in “The Metamorphosis”, Mersault is on trial for murder in “The Stranger”).
- You can begin with a line or two that describes the setting, then move on to who is in the setting, and why.
- You can begin with a writing prompt that takes you somewhere totally unexpected. Try one of these.
- You can begin with an inciting action: a man on vacation jumps off a cliff into the cold water below, and as he is jumping we see a large rock jutting up from the surface of the water.
- You can begin with a phrase, an image, a place, a memory, a character who demands to be heard.
- You can begin by withholding information. A great example of an opening paragraph that sets up tension by withholding information is Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery.” It begins with a sentence about the setting, then moves on to describe the townspeople gathering for an event. In the happiness of the opening paragraph, it is clear that something is about to happen; that something turns out to be quite terrible and dramatic. Here’s the opening paragraph.
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 2th. but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.
- A story can begin anywhere, but the most important thing about the beginning of a story is that it draw the reader in by introducing both character and conflict.
One of the questions I hear most often from aspiring writers is, “How do I publish my first book?” While there’s no easy path to publication, with a good story, a very thick skin, and a great deal of patience, you can get there.
I began writing the stories that would appear in my first book, a story collection entitled The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, one winter while living alone in a shabby duplex with no heat in a dodgy part of Knoxville, Tennessee. During the day I went to my job as a copywriter at an ad agency, and at night in my scruffy little apartment I bundled up in coat and scarf and typed away on my Mac duo-doc, while the couple next door fought so loudly I came to know the intimate nature of their marital troubles. I was 23 years old, and the thing I wanted more than anything in the world was to become a writer.
Two years later I went to grad school—one year in Arkansas, which I quit, another in Miami, which I finished—and during that time I continued writing stories on the duo-doc, although in much better apartments. One was a seventh-floor studio on Miami Beach. This was 1996, and the $700/month studio was hard on my budget, but I paid for it with my teaching stipend from the University of Miami and considered it my own writing retreat.
Those were solitary years, and the solitude suited me. I had a feverish work ethic in those days when it came to writing, and it was in graduate school that I began publishing short stories in literary magazines. That little taste of getting my stories out in the world was all it took to keep me going.
On to New York City in 1998. More jobs, more writing of stories, publications here and there, and rejections galore. Then, in 2000, on the cusp of turning thirty, living in San Francisco with my fiancé and teaching composition at City College, a phone call from the Associated Writing Programs to say that The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress had won the AWP Award for Fiction and would be published by University of Massachusetts Press. Bliss and more bliss. That book was my most exciting publication to date, because it was my first. To this day, that collection of linked stories, which probably sold no more than a couple thousand copies, is closer to my heart than any of my subsequent books.
Two years later, after many rejections from agents and publishers, my first novel, Dream of the Blue Room, was released by MacAdam/Cage, a small San Francisco publisher. Sales were, shall we say, quiet. Four years passed. More rejections. But along the way, at the Sewanee Writers Conference, I meg Georges and Ann Borchardt, a wonderful husband-and-wife agent team who had been helping books find their way into the light. When my next book, The Year of Fog, was ready to go out to publishers, Ann and Georges passed me on to their daughter, Valerie, who has been my agent ever since. She stuck with me through many rejections, and The Year of Fog finally saw the light in 2007. It went on to become a New York Times bestseller and a major bestseller in France. I never would have guessed! But having a smart, honest, enthusiastic agent who had faith in me–not to mention a wonderful editor named Caitlin Alexander who had faith in my book–made all the difference.
My third novel, published a year later, was No One You Know. It’s a book about the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories others tell about us. It’s also a book about sisters, and obsession. And I didn’t realize until I was halfway into it that it’s the book I’ve been wanting to write, in many ways, for the last ten years. And in this vein a character from my very first published story makes an appearance, however brief, in the final chapter of No One You Know. In the final chapter of the book, the narrator, Ellie Enderlin, is walking through the streets of San Francisco late at night and finds herself on an unfamiliar block. “In a second-floor apartment, a girl in a yellow nightgown walked slowly past the window. A tall figure moved toward her. A slender arm reached out to turn off a lamp, and the room went dark. Everything about the moment was startlingly familiar. Had I been here before? Had someone described this very scene to me? Or maybe, I had simply read it all in a book. Sometimes it felt as if books and life formed a strange origami, the intricate folds and secret shadows so inextricably connected, it was impossible to tell one from the other.”
Take a writing class to get feedback on your stories, memoir, or novel. If there are no university continuing ed classes where you live, consider an online class.
Find a few trusted readers with whom to share your work. These will be people who are willing to tell you when something doesn’t work in a story.
Submit stories or memoir excerpts to literary magazines in order to begin building your publishing resume.
Look for an agent who represents the kind of book you have written. Then query the agent with a cover page and, if requested, the first three chapters of your book.
When you’ve revised your book and are confident that it’s the best book it can be, look for first book contests that would be a good fit. These contests generally provide a small advance and publication by a university press. Contest deadlines and descriptions can be found in Poets and Writers Magazine.
First, do your research
The old-school but reliable Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books)covers many of the better publications with detailed descriptions of tastes, editorial guidelines, payment, and rights.
The Pushcart Prize Anthology (Pushcart Press) is an annual anthology of the best of literary magazines and presses selected by editors themselves; you’ll not only find fiction in here, but a list addresses of prize-winning magazines and presses.
For current publishing opportunities, check out the Writer’s Chronicle, published by the Associated Writing Programs, and Poets and Writers Magazine (my personal favorite), which has upcoming deadlines for literary contests, as well as calls for submissions.
Here are some wonderful resources for anyone looking to submit fiction:
• Newpages.com—litmags, publishers, and book reviews
• www.webdelsol.com–Contains many useful links to literary magazines and resources for writers.
• Mid-American Review–Contains useful links under “Writer’s Tools” link. (http://www.bgsu.edu/studentlife/organizations/midamericanreview/index2.html)
• www.zuzu.com–Same concept as Webdelsol, but with even more links to literary magazines and e-zines
Some of my favorite literary magazines:
Alaska Quarterly Review
Quick Fiction Online
South Carolina Review
Nerve (sexy stuff only)
Bellevue Literary Review
North Dakota Quarterly
Sycamore Review Exquisite Corpse
Any publication is a big boon and a definite validation of your talent, but here are the magazines that can really jump-start a career: The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review. It never hurts to send to these guys as long as you’re sending out a bulk submission. All of them except McSweeney’s & The Paris Review publish mainly agented material, but occasionally a non-agented submissions will make it into the magazine.Read More
• Until recently, submitting to literary journals meant buying loads of stamps, weighing your manila envelopes at the post office, and including self-addressed, stamped envelopes. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. Most literary magazines have an online submission form, and most prefer online submissions to hard copies.
• If the literary magazine asks for a cover letter with your submission, make it brief. Your letter should mention where you’ve published in the past, and should include a very short bio. Your cover letter should NOT explain or praise the story. That is very bad form, and will likely result in your story being deleted before it is even read.
• Do submit to more than one place at once. Five is a good number to start with.
• Never send a publication a second story before the editors have responded to the first.
• Never call to check on the progress of your submission.
• Shorter stories (8-15 pages) are more likely to be accepted than very long stories.
• Always double-space your story, use one-inch margins, and indent every paragraph!
Here are some of the best online resources for anyone looking to submit fiction:
Newpages.com—litmags, publishers, and book reviews
www.webdelsol.com–Contains many useful links to literary magazines and resources for writers.
Mid-American Review–Contains useful links under “Writer’s Tools” link.
www.zuzu.com–Same concept as Webdelsol, but with even more links to literary magazines and e-zines
More great resources to check out before you submit:
• Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books)–This is probably the best; it covers many of the better publications with detailed descriptions of tastes, editorial guidelines, payment, and rights.
• Pushcart Prize Anthology (Pushcart Press)–Annual anthology of the best of literary magazines and presses selected by editors themselves; you’ll not only find fiction in here, but a list addresses of prize-winning magazines and presses.
For current publishing opportunities, check out the Writer’s Chronicle, published by the Associated Writing Programs (www.awpwriter.org) and Poets and Writers Magazine (my personal favorite), which has upcoming deadlines for literary contests, as well as calls for submissions. Go to www.pw.org
Some of my favorite literary magazines:
Glimmer Train Fourteen Hills The Sun Other Voices Alaska Quarterly Review Mid-American Review Ploughshares Granta Boulevard Story Quarterly Quick Fiction Online: CutBank South Carolina Review Nerve (sexy stuff only) Missouri Review Bellevue Literary Review Blackbird Mississippi Review Gulf Coast Identity Theory North Dakota Quarterly Sycamore Review Exquisite Corpse
Any publication is a big boon and a definite validation of your talent, but here are the magazines that can really jump-start a career: The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review. It never hurts to send to these guys as long as you’re sending out a bulk submission. All of them except McSweeney’s & The Paris Review publish mainly agented material, but occasionally a non-agented submissions will make it into the magazine.
Back in July of 2011, WORD magazine remembered John Carter, songwriter, producer, and A&R man extraordinaire, who “was instrumental in the careers of and a passionate supporter of Bob Seger, The Motels, Sammy Hagar, Melissa Etheridge, Tori Amos, David and David, and … Tina Turner.”
WORD quotes an interviewfor industry website Taxi, in which Carter said that “the one thing he had learned was that over 70 percent of hit records have titles containing nouns.”
All kinds of songs become successful, and therefore can be held up as examples to encourage someone that what they’re doing is right, but I think, in general, it’s an English lesson. Lyrics are important It’s about a story. It’s about a great title. The title should have a big noun in it. Some of the best songs are even proper nouns. Nouns, baby, nouns!”
If you think about it, the same principle applies to good writing of any kind. One, “it’s about a story.” And two, it’s specific: proper nouns are nothing if not specific. It’s the very old, very true creative writing 101 lesson: you get to the universal by way of the personal. You reach many by focusing on the struggle of one. It’s easy to find great books with a proper noun in the title:
The Great Gatsby
Okay, you get the picture. Of course, this is not to say it has to be a proper noun. I can think of equally exciting books that have only improper nouns (I don’t think that’s a thing, really, but I like the sound of it) in the title.
To Kill a Mockingbird
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The Bluest Eye
Things Fall Apart (what can be less specific than things?)
Brave New World
You’ll note, however, that all of the books in the latter category get very specific very quickly, with characters whose personal and unique struggles have a universal quality. Scout moves us not because she’s archetypal, but because she is a very specific child at a very specific time and place, engaged in a universal struggle played out in the tragedy of one man and one town.Read More