Vintage+woman+office+type+writerRecently I had shown my students several different ways to begin an essay. Instead of staring dumbfounded at a blank page (that is, if you’ve been blocked from, I presented them with a few different starting techniques, such as posing a question, telling a story or exposing a fault in logic to name a few. Later on it led me to ponder what’s really the best way to launch a book? I’ve tried several techniques, but is there one sure-fire way?

After you’re writing for awhile you begin to settle into a few characteristic ways of doing things. Eventually they’ll be known as your “style.” Whether it’s a turn of phrase, a sense of irony, a humorous bent or any number of things indicative of your method of storytelling, your readers will recognize it and hopefully love it enough to come back to your work over and over. One of the most important indications of your style will be your opening, perhaps even your very first line. Depending on the genre, the opening is often approached in various ways, but I’m of the firm belief it should grab your readers from nearly the first line.

I once heard a comment from a genre writer that literary fiction is usually depressing.  Not that l believe this is true–I don’t–but one of its characteristics is a more variegated writing style that often takes longer to open. Many times the introduction is an unfolding, an intricate depiction of a landscape, situation or character. It could be more obtuse than easily recognizable, its meaning shaded by metaphor or symbolism. Often there’s an unreliable narrator or the characters appear doomed from the onset. The overall pace can be slower as there’s a lot more emphasis on the way something’s said, rather than on the speedy advancement of the plot. In fact, often there is no resolution, the story left open-ended so we could draw our own conclusion.

Not so much in genre writing. The lovers find their happily-ever-after, the mystery is solved, the planet is saved from destruction (actually, I don’t really know what happens in scifi; I’m just applying a happy ending with an intergalactic bent). And all this is initiated at a faster pace. Readers want the lovers to meet, the victim to die, and the alternate universe to appear as soon as possible. So how’s this accomplished? Why not try to–

Start in the middle – Forget the backstory and jump right into a situation already in progress. The cat’s up the tree, the car’s hit a pole, the cad’s been caught with the hussy–it’s all in your face and your protagonist hasn’t a clue how to deal with it. Dump them into a situation that’ll be hell to fix while sprinkling in backstory as the plot progresses. Think breadcrumbs along a trail.

Eavesdrop – Someone’s arguing or confessing or dishing over drinks, and there you are, a fly on the wall, privy to a candid conversation. Drop in a minimum of milieu and let your characters tell your readers what’s going on through their dialogue. Watch being overly explicit about what you say, though. Too much detail and your casual conversation can come off as an information dump. Divulge on a need-to-know basis.

Begin with the ending – One of the best examples of this technique is the 1950 movie classic by director Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden. The movie opens with Holden’s body floating face-down in a Beverly Hills mansion’s swimming pool, and in his own voice he tells you how he got there. It’s really not as anti-climatic as it seems as you’re dying (sorry) to know how he got that way. And if you apply this to writing a book, hey! they’ll be no angsting over how to end it.

That’s a just a few ways, and I’m sure there’s many more, but one thing’s for certain. If you don’t give your readers something to grab onto, they’ll be nothing to keep them turning the pages. The sooner you get them hooked, the easier it’ll be to pull them into the story and all the way through to the end.

Grow the hell up (and I’m not talking about your kids)

crying-baby-images-and-wallpaper-25As a college professor, I’m surrounded by young adults, and overall, they’re a lovely lot. I’m continually jazzed by their inventiveness, optimism and vitality, and 95% of the time, they’re a joy to be around. So what makes the other five percent such a slog? Ask any collegiate administrator, staffer or academic – it’s not the kids, it’s the parents.

Seeing that these parents are my contemporaries, they should know better.  Back during our college orientation days, we either got dropped off at the curb or the bus stop or arrived in our ten-year-old heaps (if we were even allowed, as freshman, to have cars on campus). For three days we usually stumbled around trying to manuever a confusion of classes, advisors, academic halls, tuition, textbooks and financial aid, not to mention mold-infested dorms, stinky communal bathrooms, unidentifiable food, the inevitable creepy roommate, all which were eventually placated by the awakened reality of unsupervised and unlimited sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. There in July, amid a half-slumbering campus, armed with our SAT scores and a wad of summer job money, ready to be socked into our new local bank account, we’d get our first taste of independence, the Orientation not only a portend of college, but of a life we couldn’t wait to make on our own. But that was then.

Now has Joey and Suzy Campus following the Rents’ Family Volvo with their New Graduation Ride. First stop is the Family Picnic, where Mater and Pater pick up their own Orientation schedule. While Suzy is being tested and reevaluated, Mom and Pop are attending seminars on Separation Anxiety and Snowplow Parenting. Later on Dad goes to buy the textbooks, while Joey Campus is in his residential suite, sipping latte from the campus Starbucks as he sets up the webcam to Skype home every night, and Mom is transferring a grand or two into her little student’s Kampus Kash account. Some parents have been known to attend advisor meetings with the student, or at least try to, and one NJ campus reports an instance where a parent was asked to stop walking a student to the classroom. They’re trying to be nice about it but truly, they have but two words for parents: get out!

A-hem! Listen up, parental units: we are in danger of raising a nation of infants. Look, I know you want the best for your little darlings, want to wrap them in cotton wool and keep every nasty bugaboo far, far away, but for all your good intentions, this reality intrudes: if your son or daughter is over eighteen, and they are of sound mind and body, you are not legally responsible for them. If their car hits my car, I am going to sue them, not you. If they are in danger of failing, I’m not going to call you. As a matter of fact, my dean has expressly told all professors that we do not talk to parents. In fact, federal privacy laws stipulate that we not do so. If they are failing, if they owe money, if they don’t have their textbooks, if they don’t make it to class on time because you didn’t wake them up, that is THEIR problem. And I will not talk to you on their cell phone to tell you so.

There are too many in this generation that need to Man/Woman up. And it’s because the two most spoiled generations in history, the GenXers and the Baby Boomers, raised them that way. If we’re throwing up our hands at their self-serving, entitled ways, it is because we have created these scary monsters, with our own pushy, demanding, self-serving attitudes. But listen to this chunk of How It Really Is: there will be no coddling at my house. I’m the cold shower of reality. I don’t care if your mother forgot to upload your assignment. Don’t tell me it wasn’t your fault your alarm didn’t go off. Want to see me go off? Try passing the blame to someone else. For that, my dear, it really is all about you.

Hey, we’re all adults here, and I promise not to be condescending. Life’s a bitch, but it’s also very sweet, and I’m here to help with your transition. And I promise, whatever happens, I won’t tell your mother.


Woman shouting in surprise

I’m always writing something. If it’s not this blog, I’m jotting into my journal (yes, paper, I still have one of those) or slaving away on one work-in-progress or another. While the first two are usually seat-of-my-pants entries, which to me, are about as much effort as launching into a brand new box of Skinny Cow Chocolate Truffle Bars  (have you had these things? Almost orgasmic, and a ridiculous 100 calories! With NO artificial sweeteners either!!), lately my WIP has been leaving me somewhat frustrated. Granted, I’m not very far into it, only about thirty pages or so, but I’ve been so stuck on minutiae, examining every word and phrasing, that I’m hardly making any progress. Seems I just keep picking it apart and rewriting over and over, staring at it so closely and critically I can practically read the coding on the screen. I’m telling you, my inner editor has gone off the deep end, and it’s nearly driving me nuts. What’s a writer to do?

First, a little self-criticism, followed by a bit of analysis. Editing, intrinsically, is always a good thing. Seat-of-the-pants writing, or as I like to refer to it, verbal vomit, will only take you so far. It’s like making popcorn: you always end up with a lot of old maids (talk about an anachronism, but you know what I mean). If you don’t get rid of them, you’ll end of breaking your teeth, and in your writing, your rhythm. I tend to edit often as I write, re-reading line after paragraph after page in each writing session, and more often than not, I find a lot of superfluous prose I can trim away. Ultimately come up with cleaner, more elegant writing. The problem arises when the editing impedes me from getting further into my story, and I end up shaping and reshaping the same piece of clay so to speak, which is where I’m finding myself now. Why in blue blazes am I doing this?!

Now comes the self-analysis part. I’ve determined there are a few factors. I’m thinking because of school my writing schedule is a bit more erratic,  so I’ve sort of lost my momentum.  But I’m hardly one of those people out there who say they’re too busy to write because, personally, I never understood that. Usually I’m too busy not to write,  as I’ve always found it a challenge to snatch blocks of time I could devote to writing, whether in the early morning hours, during breaks between classes or somewhere between dinner- and bedtime.  As is the old adage: if you want something done, give it to a busy person. Applies to me, because truly, I’ve never missed a deadline, and I always get things done. So why now?

Perhaps it comes down to self-confidence, and maybe I’m lacking a bit at the moment, which I’m sure all writers wrestle with now and then. Sometimes we lack the conviction it takes to be confident in our abilities, and since writing is such a lonely exercise, it’s not as if we have a boss or coach standing over us prodding us on. Or maybe I’m a bit cowed by that Great Unknown that lies beyond those obsessively crafted words, but how will I know how truly wonderful I am if I don’t move past them? Writing means many different things to writers, but don’t let anyone ever tell you it doesn’t take courage to bring out in the open what we’ve created so deeply within us. Sometime I think it takes the courage of a soldier. And yet, we still do it, don’t we?



secretary20pinup8dnDear Editor,

I simply must tell you how fantastic you look today. I know your job is tough and you’ve been relentlessly busy, but honestly, it doesn’t show. You look fabulous. Quite the contrast to me as I’ve been working my fingers to the bone. Have these creative synapses been sparkin’ and how!

But that’s the way I roll. Banging out the genius day and night, living, eating, breathing. Sometimes it’s hard to contain but I eventually get it down. Love the pressure, too. I live for the deadline. Haven’t missed one yet. See, I’m all about honor: honoring deadlines, honoring advice, honoring the miraculous fact there are people out there who honestly want to read what I have to say. It’s an awesome concept. One I wouldn’t dare take lightly. Insert derriere in chair, remove pretension. And never, ever forget you’re only as good as your latest.

I would like you to believe I’m worth the risk. I’d work hard for you. I’m seasoned. I deliver. If there’s anything I believe it’s writers write. It’s what I do. I just can’t help myself. If there’s a writer’s dominant out there, I’m his bitch. See for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

By the way, have I told you how fabulous you look today?

Many thanks,

Gwen Jones

Look up and shut up

IMG_2766In a odd spate of convergence this week, my freshman students have an essay due based on the observations of writer and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, whose editorial appeared last Sunday in The New York Times.  It’s Turkle’s contention in “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” that students as well as adult smartphone users should ask themselves the question, “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?”

Turkle uses data from a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center,  stating that 89 percent of cellphone owners said they had used their phones during their last social gathering, even though 82% percent of the same adults felt using them somehow took away from the conversation. Counter that with the “rule of three,” or how  a group of college students Turkle interviewed handle the use of devices in social settings. While conversing with six or so people at dinner, “you have to check that three people are paying attention — heads up — before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone. ” The idea is you can continue to converse “but with different people having their heads up at different times.” Turkle contends that this “rule of three” tends to keep conversation light, focusing mainly on topics where people feel they can drop in and out. By following the rule, the students say, ” You never have to be bored. When you sense that a lull in the conversation is coming, you can shift your attention from the people in the room to the world you can find on your phone.” But students also lamented the downside. As one college junior put it, “Our texts are fine. It’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem.”

Yet if you’re a writer, it’s not only your conversations that are suffering. Your writing is suffering, too. Because if all your talking is fluffy and all your observations are out of Instagram, Twitter, or Google, chances are your writing is as deep and as substantive as Jell-O. I once had someone ask me why a writer would interview people when she could get the same information online. Could she? Then from where did that information spring? From the info pixies? Too many of us rely on “research” done via online, because too many don’t want to do the heavy lifting that comes with face-to-face or real world interactions. I know of one popular writer of 19th century historicals who worked around this by first writing the book, then doing a quick online fact check before submitting. This same writer had an actual book published with a scene from the 1860s that featured a telephone.  You could say that a simple Google search would have corrected that in a snap. But how could it when the writer didn’t know enough about the era to know what to check?

The point is a writer needs to be observant, to turn his or her attention away from the virtual and into the world going on around them. Honing the art of observation is the first skill a writer needs to master before they could ever strike a key to start a story. Ask yourself: Is Wikipedia is the first place you turn to for research, instead of that hot history geek bartender spouting random facts as he pours your Guinness? If it is, then maybe you need to look up from Tinder instead of just sitting there swiping left.