Back in the 70s, I played guitar in a couple metal bands. I had fun, but I wasn’t any good. These days, I’m trying to teach myself to play blues guitar again (a goal that aligns with my latest writing project). The 45-year layoff taught me two things. First, old fingers suck. Second, there’s a lot to learn about writing from playing guitar.
Bob Denver Was So Much More Than Gilligan.
The best guitarist I ever saw was an unlikely-looking kid (he resembled Bob Denver from the television show, Gilligan’s Island). I won’t mention his name because he still plays bars in northern Colorado. We got together a few times, decades ago, to jam.
I asked him for the secret to crafting a good guitar solo. He said, “Start simple. Play a few licks they’ve heard and expected before you launch off into your crazy stuff. If you give them something they can wrap their heads around to start with, they’ll stick with you.”
For non-musicians, a lick is a stock pattern or phrase that catches the ear.
I've also seen instant bursts of action that require immediate backstory via a clumsy flashback.
I can understand why this sort of thing happens. We've all been told to hook the reader with brilliance in the first six sentences. That's a lot of pressure. Perhaps I can mitigate some of it.
In the hierarchy of imperatives, where you start your story might be more important than how you start. Focus on character and plot. Write the way you speak to ensure your authentic voice is in play.
One of the drawbacks to real life is the absence of a time machine to allow you to correct mistakes after-the-fact. Novel writing comes with a built-in time machine called self-editing. You can go back and change the opening after you finish your book.
In fact, your story’s opening may just be the last thing you should write before finishing the novel. And when you revisit that opening, my advice will still hold true. Start simple.
Let the story unfold—you have miles of pages to go before the end.
Great Opening Lines
Because breaking the rules is the only certain rule of writing. These classic lines don't follow any of my advice. Which of these openings is your favorite?
What if you had almost a month of undistracted writing time? With a private studio. Physically isolated from family and friends. Limited internet access—nearly off the grid except for stimulating conversations over dinner with artists from all over the country, or even the world.
Room, board, and studio provided free of charge. No obligations. Heaven or hell? Could you do it? If so, what would you accomplish? If this sounds like heaven, then perhaps a residency is in your future.
After Hours of Work, Relaxing In The Artist's Lounge.
Last February, I was fortunate to be one of seven resident artists at the Brush Creek Ranch near Saratoga, Wyoming. Funded by the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts (https://www.brushcreekarts.org/), up to eight artists—musicians, visual artists, and writers—are selected each month for a twenty-two-day residency.
Brush Creek isn’t the only opportunity of its kind. An internet search yields hundreds of residencies available to writers. The details differ in what they provide and what they expect, but all have a common underlying objective: give the artists undistracted time to focus on their craft.
A residency of the Brush Creek kind (the limit of my experience) isn’t for everybody. To ensure the artists’ time is undistracted, visitors are discouraged and overnight visitors prohibited.
As noted, internet access is limited by bandwidth and location within the facility, so if your project is research-heavy, you may not realize the full potential of the opportunity. Family, school, and work obligations can be a problem for many.
Brush Creek Artists, February 2019 (l-r), Natalie Obermaier, Johanna Mueller, Ben Ehrlich, Marsha Goldberg, the author, Suzanne Samuels, Robert Strobel.
So if you’ve cleared all those hurdles and are still with me here, then you may be asking, how do I get in?
All residencies have some form of an application process. A typical submission includes a sample of your work, a statement of purpose, character references, and a short bio.
The actual selection process is somewhat opaque, but this is what I know—the jurors change, so a rejection in one application window doesn’t mean you shouldn’t re-apply in the next window.
The work samples are judged blind. Your writing stands on its own merit. For Brush Creek and many others, you do NOT have to be a published author to be awarded a residency. They actively seek ‘emerging’ writers as well as published authors. Character references focus on your ability to get along with a variety of people in a working/living environment.
You probably won't impress with "the space and time to hone my craft." Every artist I spoke to had a specific project—an upcoming gallery opening, a composition to polish, or, as with me, to finish the character arcs and plot development of a second novel.
Both my first novel and my WIP are set in Wyoming. But perhaps you can find common ground with the Foundation’s statement of purpose or philosophy.
Most residency appointments are highly competitive. I slipped through the cracks because I actually wanted a January or February award. Because of work and school schedules, the summer month awards can be super-competitive and harder to land.
The residency experience was one of the most productive and memorable experiences of my life. If the stars align and it fits with your life goals and objectives, I highly recommend you take a shot at it.
We humans like to categorize things: friend or foe, sweet or sour, paper or plastic. When it comes to literature, a book has got to fit into a niche. Not only does it help the library or bookstore know where to shelve the piece, but it also helps the reader, who wants to know just what exactly he or she is getting themselves into.
Thank you for your patience as we get this new system up and running, You can now add comments to blog posts by clicking on the button next to to the post title. Here's a screenshot:
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