The Rules of Story
Guest Writer Lisa Cron
We all know that grammar is utterly necessary. Try to read a book with all the punctuation removed and you won’t make it past the first page. But grammar, like language, is a living breathing entity. That’s what makes it so intoxicating, interesting and at times, maddening. It changes as the culture changes.
Which is why writers may understandably assume that the same concept applies to the rules of story, leaving you free to experiment with which elements of story to use, which to ignore, and perhaps to even make up new elements as the spirit moves you.
Love the Act of Writing
An interview with Marian Calabro by B. Lynn Goodwin
LG: . Tell us about your writing history. How did you get started as a writer?
MC: I can’t remember not writing, even though the nuns at my grade school in the 1960s certainly didn’t teach or encourage creative writing. They gave
me a great foundation in grammar, though! On my own, I wrote a newsletter for my Girl Scout troop and another for my family. The latter was one of the
few things that made my mother helpless with laughter. (She was a serious working mom, a secretary. Dad was a musician. We weren’t rich.) I was
published in American Girl, the national Girl Scout magazine, at age 11. Got into poetry, music, and theater as a teen. Majored in English at Rutgers. Went
into book publishing in Manhattan, writing catalogs and promotional copy. Segued to freelance corporate communications writing and book writing in my
early 30s. For the latter, I focused on nonfiction history for young adults (YAs).
LG: What is your niche? Can you tell us how you got into this kind of writing?
MC: As a working writer, my niche is company histories. I’ve written anniversary books commissioned by The Clorox Company, The Pep Boys, Annin
Flagmakers, and more than a dozen other clients. This work, which I began in my 40s, draws on all skills I developed to that point. I enjoy all the
interviewing, research, and creativity involved in their structure. It’s a great fit for me, since I’m hugely interested in people on the job-think Studs Terkel’s
This niche blossomed to the point where I founded a corporate history publishing company in 2004. We’re small but surprisingly busy. My husband and I
write about half of our books. We subcontract others to professional authors, and call on freelance art directors and editors as needed. Our business has
branched out to websites and consulting. We wear a lot of hats.
I liked writing young adult books, too, but I simply couldn’t make a living at it. Very few YA nonfiction authors can. My best-known YA is The Perilous
Journey of the Donner Party, published by Clarion Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin. It recently went out of print after 15 years, a honorable run.
So my day job involves corporate histories. At nights and on weekends, I lead two creative writing groups using the Amherst Writers & Artists method. I
also use the AWA method in community education workshops. (I became certified as a leader in 2004 and was fortunately to train directly with AWA
founder Pat Schneider.) In my groups I write poetry and nonfiction, and play around with a novel. I also cycle in and out of playwriting. I love that the
most, but it’s also the toughest genre. The creative writing has loosened up my business writing and made it more colorful and readable-at least I think and
LG: If you could write any book you wanted, what would it be about and who would be your ideal publisher?
MC: Interesting question. I’d love to write a book about the children of the Donner Party, but this time with a creative nonfiction approach. Maybe each
chapter would be written from the point of view of a different adolescent. Ideal publisher would be Clarion again, or Random House, or one of the
mainstream houses. I’ve also grappled with a full-length play for years that I should probably just rewrite as a novel.
LG: What’s most difficult about working with other writers?
That’s not an issue in my workshops, because the Amherst Method respects and welcomes all voices.
MC: On the corporate history side, I’ve been the editor and publisher on a project or two where I had some differences with the authors I hired. They
couldn’t let go of what I call “journo-tude.” Corporate histories fall into the public relations category. To write them, you have to be 100% comfortable
with that fact. By instinct and training, dyed-in-the-wool journalists are uncomfortable writing anything that approaches PR.
LG: What do you consider your biggest success?
MC: First, that I’ve earned a decent living as a writer. Second, my Donner Party book. It reads like a novel, yet everything in it is factual. Not one word of
dialogue or observation is fabricated; the quotes come from the writings of the survivors. The book is in thousands of public and school libraries. Third, the
fact that my workshops have launched many other writers, especially adults who have always wanted to write.
LG: What advice would you give to writers who want to get published?
MC: Buy a thick suit of armor. Love the act of writing, because the publishing process has gotten brutal. If writing itself doesn’t provide deep satisfaction,
publishing won’t. Also, take agents with a grain of salt. They’re not a silver bullet. Ultimately they work for publishers, not for authors. Understand the
different types of editing. Respect editors. A good editor can do more you than almost any other publishing professional. Authors who resist editing usually
do so at their peril.
LG: What principles guide your writing?
MC: Go deeper. Write clearly. I adore clean, clear sentences. My hero is E. B. White - he wrote essays, letters, children’s books, and poetry, and he wrote
them all well.
LG: Excellent principles! Where/how can readers learn more about you?
MC: The best starting point is http://www.mariancalabro.com. From there you can hop over to my blog, where I post a writing exercise every week and
also review plays, books, and the occasional movie. That site also has a link to http://corporatehistory.net. As a corporate historian, I’m on Instagram and
Twitter. The handle in both those places is @corphistory.
Obviously Marian Calabro is an accomplished, skilled writer, editor, and teacher. She has an extensive resume. She offers a variety of services. Read about
them on her website.
Thank you so much for introducing yourself to Writer Advice readers and sharing your experience and knowledge with us, Marian.
Ten Tips from Veteran Authors
If you had a chance to share a dozen tips from veteran authors, whom would you select and what would you hope they might say? I went to the
Aerogramme Writer’s Studio, which I found through a Google search. This advice comes from experienced writers with a message to share.
How did I pick the dozen whose work I’m sharing? I like the author, the message, or both. This is highly subjective. As I tell my writing clients, keep what’s
useful and disregard the rest.
Want to let me know whose advice you liked best and why? Please e-mail Lgood67334 AT Comcast DOT net. I’d love to hear from you.
“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There
will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that - but you are the only you.” ― Neil Gaiman
“I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write,
you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think
about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great
writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour - write, write, write.” ―
“I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they “don’t have time to read.” This is
like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.” ― Stephen King
“Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth,
you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have
painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.” ― Anne Lamott
“Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delays: don’t write about Man, write about a man.” ― E.B. White
Joyce Carol Oates
“Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to
sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.” ― Joyce Carol Oates
“You either have to write or you shouldn’t be writing. That’s all.” ― Joss Whedon
“Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust our own judgment, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort the good
from the bad - including your own bad.” ― Doris Lessing
“Whenever I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read, and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And
the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories and listen closely to the stories you’re being told.” ― John Green
“Write. Start writing today. Start writing right now. Don’t write it right, just write it -and then make it right later. Give yourself the mental freedom to enjoy
the process, because the process of writing is a long one. Be wary of “writing rules” and advice. Do it your way.” ― Tara Moss
Tell me which one you like best and why. I’d be interested in your opinion. Thanks for considering it.
Can You Write a Memoir in 30 Days?
An Interview with Robert Temes, PhD by B. Lynn Goodwin
I’ve been thinking about writing a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62. Most days I don’t make it a
priority, though, so when I received a copy of How to Write A Memoir in 30 Days, written by Roberta Temes, PhD and
published by Reader’s Digest, I was eager to try the exercises before I reviewed it. For the first nineteen days I thoroughly
enjoyed the writing exercises and prompts. They helped me look at old issues and brought new energy to the project. But I
wondered how my childhood memories would help me with a memoir about a current relationship that had only begun three
years earlier. The exercises brought up the past and my prospective memoir focuses on the present.
When I got to Day 20, I read, “Today is the day you will gather all you have written and organize your writing to create what
is called a narrative arc…. Please print out everything you have written since Day 1 and then add any blog or personal journal
entries you may have written that are relevant to the memoir.” I could not imagine doing this in one day. I wanted to ask the
author several things, and I’m sharing her answers in the Q & A below.
LG: I like that you approach memoir as a tool for helping writers resolve issues. How did you develop your interest in memoir?
RT: For many decades I wrote during evenings and weekends while on weekdays I put my Ph.D. in Psychology to use by
treating psychotherapy clients.
Those years taught me that you can make sense of your life, and improve your mental health, by talking/writing about
memories. I’m comfortable with strong feelings and know how to help folks access those feelings.
LG: How do you suggest writers deal with concerns about sharing stories of living people and/or private matters?
RT: Please deal with those matters very carefully. As you know, it’s the private matters and dramatic details that make your
memoir a best-seller. Nobody wants to read about a perfect family and perfect life. It’s conflict that keeps the reader turning
the pages of your book. High drama makes a best-seller.
So, what to do about secrets? First, talk to the people whom you think may object and tell them your intention. I’ve worked
with several writers who, upon speaking to their relatives, learned that those folks were relieved to know that they could
finally come clean. They were okay with letting the truth be known.
Next, if your family is not ready for full revelation ask if they might agree to simply changing some names and some identifying
characteristics. If that doesn’t work go ahead and write your book anyway. Don’t let that hold you up. In the time it takes
you to finish your manuscript they may reconsider. People like to read about themselves even if it’s not always flattering and
sometimes they just need more time to get accustomed to the idea.
If even that fails you can wait until you outlive everyone involved; you can work with your editor to change your memoir to a
novel; or you can go ahead and publish anyway and prepare to take the repercussions.
LG: If someone wants to write about a recent event, how would you suggest they use the exercises that take them into the
RT: All present day choices and decisions you make, and all present day actions you take, reflect your past experiences. Your
behavior is based upon the sum of all the events of your life and your reactions to those events. Exploring your past, through
the exercises in my book, How to Write Your Memoir in 30 Days, helps you figure out how past incidents influence you today.
LG: This is probably true, yet many of my responses didn’t have any clear relationship to my marriage. You’ve given me a lot
to think about, though, and I enjoyed the exercises. Do you really think a person can write a memoir in 30 days or will the final
11 chapters of your book take longer?
RT: Yes, you can complete your memoir in 30 days. Or, more specifically, by following 30 writing tasks. Some writers prefer to
do their writing every other day, others may work only on weekends. If you write each day you will be finished at 30 days. At
that point your book will be a coherent story that exemplifies your life. If you wish to publish that book you might need to
engage editorial help and you would be wise to attend writing workshops where other memoirists could critique your writing
and offer suggestions.
LG: I’m relieved to hear that you get a draft in 30 days rather than a finished product. What are some of your favorite
RT: Baker, RussellGrowing Up this is a coming of age story
Didion, Joan The Year of Magical Thinking this is a bereavement reflection
Gornick, Vivian Fierce Attachments a mother and daughter drama
McBride, James The Color of Water race and identity defined within a family
Walls, Jeanette The Glass Castle growing up in a most dysfunctional family
These are just a few of the many memoirs that I heartily endorse. It is always a privilege to read someone’s story. I enjoy
romantic memoirs, often about couples who dated when they were young but spent decades married to other people and then
reconnect and fall in love again. I like tell-all memoirs, where secrets are revealed and I applaud authors who write illness
memoirs which permit the reader to accompany the author through diagnosis, treatment and then either triumph or tragedy.
LG: You listed excellent choices. Thanks. How did you find your publisher?
RT: I went through the usual steps that every published writer must follow. I outlined my book and then wrote a thorough
book proposal. When the proposal was satisfactory I sent it to Janet Rosen, my literary agent who is at Sheree Bykofsky’s
agency. Janet shopped it around and Reader’s Digest was the first publisher to be interested in acquiring it. And they did a
great job, so I’m glad I went with them.
LG: What are you working on now and how can people learn more about your services?
RT: I am editing several memoirs - one is written by a woman who was a child in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement,
another is by a recently retired attorney who is writing about his most interesting cases and what he has learned from them,
and another is by a woman who wants the world to know about her recovery from a rare illness.
My website, www.MemoirClassOnLine.com explains how I work- it’s all by email and the occasional phone session. I encourage
your readers to contact me even if they are not ready to edit their book but just need some help with a particular issue. The
best way to reach me is at email@example.com.
And, I still devote one day each week to my psychotherapy practice where I use alternative mental health treatments, usually
hypnosis and/or tapping.
You can access all the books I’ve written on my Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/author/robertatemes
Thanks for sharing your approach to memoir. The ones you’re editing right now sound interesting. I agree that as a therapist,
you bring an important perspective to the memory. I wish you all the best as you help people tell their stories.
Strategies for Being Noticed
What does it take to win a writing contest?
First of all you have to enter. Enter your best work. Sounds obvious, but
sometimes writers get tired and send something that isn’t quite ready. To be
sure, try reading your piece aloud or have a trusted friend read it to you. Do
you hear any holes or glitches? Fix them, but don’t wait forever if you haven’t
found the perfect solution. Enter as soon as you are ready. Remember, most
contests come around every year.
Here are some tips that will make a novel or memoir opening into a Scintillating
* Start with something that will pique the reader’s interest.
* Start with high stakes.
* Start with something unexpected.
* Start in a voice that will make readers take notice.
* Start with a puzzle, a predicament, or a day gone horribly wrong.
* Start by having your character in the wrong place at the wrong time.
* Start with a physical explosion.
* Start with an emotional explosion.
* Build the stakes.
* Add sensory details.
* Let reader’s care.
1665532271, you’ll find 50 excellent sentence starts. Some of them may surprise
you. The title tells you that these are the 50 Best First Sentences, but “best” is
in the eye of the beholder. If you read them all, you’ll get a sense of how some
authors have hooked in large groups of readers.
Renowned agent Michael Larsen included this list of techniques in an article for
the San Francisco Writer’s Conference:
A great opening line does one or more of the following:
* Begins right in the middle of the story, putting the reader immediately into
the dramatic action
* Takes us immediately into another world that we feel we must know more
* Immediately gives us the opportunity to escape from our own thoughts,
obsessions and concerns
* Let’s us know instantly that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller
* Presents us with something unusual, quirky, amazing, shocking or emotionally
* Introduces us to a fascinating, funny or idiosyncratic character
* Introduces us to an adventure, dilemma or person we simply must know more
* Establishes a mystery that we want to solve
* Sets a compelling emotional mood or tone
* Builds suspense and tension that makes us want to know more.
If you think there is overlap in the two lists, you are right. Wise advisors will tell
you to stay true to your story and your characters, keep the stakes high, and
compel us to keep reading. That should mean something a little different to
each of you, depending on your interests, your background, and the story
you’re burning to tell.
We want to read your Scintillating Start. Go to the Home Page,
50 Writing Tools In Clear,
Use this quick list of 50 Writing Tools, which were e-mailed to me by
IndieWritersSupport.com as a handy reference. Their site is the subject of this month’s
Some of these ideas will work better for you than others. Keep what’s useful and save
the rest for another day. You may change your mind about what is useful as you
I. Nuts and Bolts
1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs.
Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right.
2. Order words for emphasis.
Place strong words at the beginning and at the end.
3. Activate your verbs.
Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.
4. Be passive-aggressive.
Use passive verbs to showcase the “victim” of action.
5. Watch those adverbs.
Use them to change the meaning of the verb.
6. Take it easy on the -ings.
Prefer the simple present or past.
7. Fear not the long sentence.
Take the reader on a journey of language and meaning.
8. Establish a pattern, then give it a twist.
Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.
9. Let punctuation control pace and space.
Learn the rules, but realize you have more options than you think.
10. Cut big, then small.
Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves.
II. Special Effects
11. Prefer the simple over the technical.
Use shorter words, sentences and paragraphs at points of complexity.
12. Give key words their space.
Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect.
13. Play with words, even in serious stories.
Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.
14. Get the name of the dog.
Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses.
15. Pay attention to names.
Interesting names attract the writer and the reader.
16. Seek original images.
Reject cliche and first-level creativity.
17. Riff on the creative language of others.
Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.
18. Set the pace with sentence length.
Vary sentences to influence the reader’s speed.
19. Vary the lengths of paragraphs.
Go short or long - or make a “turn”- to match your intent.
20. Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind.
One, two, three, or four: Each sends a secret message to the reader.
21. Know when to back off and when to show off.
When the topic is most serious, understate; when least serious, exaggerate.
22. Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction.
Learn when to show, when to tell, and when to do both.
23. Tune your voice.
Read drafts aloud.
24. Work from a plan.
Index the big parts of your work.
25. Learn the difference between reports and stories.
Use one to render information, the other to render experience.
26. Use dialogue as a form of action.
Dialogue advances narrative; quotes delay it.
27. Reveal traits of character.
Show characteristics through scenes, details, and dialogue.
28. Put odd and interesting things next to each other.
Help the reader learn from contrast.
29. Foreshadow dramatic events or powerful conclusions.
Plant important clues early.
30. To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers.
To propel readers, make them wait.
31. Build your work around a key question.
Good stories need an engine, a question the action answers for the reader.
32. Place gold coins along the path.
Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle.
33. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Purposeful repetition links the parts.
34. Write from different cinematic angles.
Turn your notebook into a “camera.”
35. Report and write for scenes.
Then align them in a meaningful sequence.
36. Mix narrative modes.
Combine story forms using the “broken line.”
37. In short pieces of writing, don’t waste a syllable.
Shape shorter works with wit and polish.
38. Prefer archetypes to stereotypes.
Use subtle symbols, not crashing cymbals.
39. Write toward an ending.
Help readers close the circle of meaning.
IV. Useful Habits
40. Draft a mission statement for your work.
To sharpen your learning, write about your writing.
41. Turn procrastination into rehearsal.
Plan and write it first in your head.
42. Do your homework well in advance.
Prepare for the expected - and unexpected.
43. Read for both form and content.
Examine the machinery beneath the text.
44. Save string.
For big projects, save scraps others would toss.
45. Break long projects into parts.
Then assemble the pieces into something whole.
46. Take interest in all crafts that support your work.
To do your best, help others do their best.
47. Recruit your own support group.
Create a corps of helpers for feedback.
48. Limit self-criticism in early drafts.
Turn it loose during revision.
49. Learn from your critics.
Tolerate even unreasonable criticism.
50. Own the tools of your craft.
Build a writing workbench to store your tools.