Starting Your Novel…and Killing Words

I’m writing this post because this message hit home yesterday. An editor can usually tell within the first page or two if a manuscript is good or acceptable. A novel’s first pages encapsulate much of the story and establish character, setting (time and place), voice, pace, and even audience.

I started my novel a while back and wrote it piece by piece–a piece here, a piece there, knowing the pieces would need to be shuffled around and reworked. I started in a mysterious tone. I really liked it. But, alas, it didn’t work.

Actually, I broke all the rules. So I spent yesterday killing words.

There were words and paragraphs and chapters that I loved. The wording was precise and exact and descriptive and I thought, um, beautiful. But I killed them. I can easily kill the words of other people when I edit, but it was really hard to kill my own. I’ve done this before to my own work, but never, ever this much.

Do you know how it feels to kill words? (Maybe, just maybe, you should.)


After killing words, I like the new chapter. I think I’ve created a platform, a story opening, that I can jump into the depths from and swim across the pages.

So if you are wondering about your own manuscript, I can not only help you kill words and get the opening right, but now I can really and truly sympathize and empathize! We’ll cry together, hug, and then be happy! Check these things in your own novel opening that you may need to address:

  1. Do you open in scene? Some manuscripts open with interior thoughts of the characters or with description of the place. Ask yourself: is anything happening?
  2. Do you give too little information? Some manuscripts attempt to create a sense of mystery, but in doing so, don’t give the reader enough information. Some manuscripts don’t make clear what is happening or the importance of what is happening. Ask yourself: do you make clear where the characters are and what is going on?
  3. Do you give too much information? Some manuscripts start with pages of backstory or description or flashbacks. As an editor, I’ve killed five to fifteen opening pages of different manuscripts. (It’s easy when it’s not my own!) A reader only needs enough information to understand the scene in progress.

Good and successful manuscripts are well-balanced with action, motivation, a little description, and some thought. They begin with a main character in a scene with an immediate goal to achieve. They pull the reader in to turn the page and see what happens next.

TurnStyle helps with the editing of full manuscripts, but also with first chapters. Let us know if you need to make sure you are on good footing in your opening!

Lee Martin: Teaching at Writers’ Conferences

I’ll be headed out later this week to the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi. This is the third conference I’ve attended, and there was also a creative nonfiction workshop in 2007, and this is the second conference I’ve co-directed with Neil White and Susan Cushman. I’m familiar with the returning faces–Dinty W. Moore, Lee Gutkind, Michael Rosenwald, Jessica Handler–and I’ve known River Jordan, who’s new this year,  since she came to Tennessee and read from the galley of her first novel at the Barnes and Noble Writers Night prior to the Southern Festival of Books where she was to be on a panel. And Lee Martin is new this year. I haven’t met him yet, but I like what I hear.

Lee’s blog today is titled “Teaching at Writers’ Conferences” and gives a glimpse of what we can expect this weekend in Oxford. He writes:

“At the end of this week, I’ll be in Oxford, Mississippi, teaching a memoir workshop preceding the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference and then sticking around to be on a panel during the conference proper. Thus begins the season of writers’ conference teaching with other visits to Rowe, Massachusetts; Yellow Springs, Ohio; and Montpelier, Vermont, to come. I love teaching at these conferences where folks are generally passionate about their craft and eager to pick up some little tidbit to help them along their writers’ journeys. I also love meeting folks I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to know, and getting to have some small part in the work that they’re doing. If I can share what I know in a way that will be helpful, maybe I can save someone a bit of time in the development of his or her craft. By so doing, I can pay back all the wonderful teachers who did the same for me. Like the handyman character, Red Green, used to say on his television show, “Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.”

I was first drawn to creative nonfiction by memoir. I was a fiction writer who decided to turn his skills with narrative into storytelling about the self. I quickly learned that I loved being able to dramatize moments from my life and arrange them in a narrative thread of cause and effect. I also loved being able to reflect upon those moments, interrogate them, use them to think more deeply about the person I was/am and the people around me. This is all to say that I’m very much looking forward to my trip to Oxford, and the conversation I’ll have about memoir with the folks in my workshop…” Read more:

It’s not too late to register! Join us for a full and inspiring weekend on the Ole Miss campus. The creative nonfiction community in the South is growing. Come join us!

The Best Creative Nonfiction

Today, while attempting an edit — this blog isn’t called First Draft for nothing — of my post “War Stories” [1/28/08], I was trying to figure out how to make it more compelling, more than just a dad telling his little girl about the war. I wanted to capture the reader, as well as to enlighten the reader, without the drone of a simple story style of baring the facts. In other words, a re-make of the post. But how?

Then I sucked in a breath, my jaws tingled, my nostrils got tight and stung. I remembered.

At Lee Gutkind’s “The 5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction Workshop” in Oxford, Mississippi last September, I was immersed in the best example of creative nonfiction I’ve ever heard. After spending a day at the master’s feet, learning that the building blocks of CNF are scenes and stories, that the writer should train himself to look at the piece from the perspective of the reader, that the writer should look at his work the way an engineer looks at a bridge — to see the blueprints, the way it is put together, to be sure it comes together the right way. Good writing is the constant manipulation of the reader — capture and keep. The writer creates a vibrant connection between the reader, the character, and the place.

When I thought the day was done and the workshop was over, Lee said he was going to play a tape for us. He pressed a button on a boom box set up at the front of the room. Click, a hard plastic sound, a second of static, then instruments and voices.

Witness to an Execution documents the minute-by-minute process of carrying out an execution by lethal injection and the stories of those who do it at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Texas is home to one-third of all executions in the U.S. It’s one thing when a society says, yeah, we’re tough on crime, kill the son-of-a-bitch, he deserves it. But it’s another thing entirely to be one of the persons paid to carry out the death sentence, one who prepares and escorts a living, breathing human to that last breath in the death chamber, and looks into his eyes as the curtain drops and it is finished.

“My name is…and I have been with 114 people at the time of their execution.” “My name is…and I have witnessed 170 executions.” “I witnessed 52 executions.” “I’ve overseen about 75 executions at the Walls Unit…. ”

The introductions come fast, one on top of the other, so that you almost stop breathing as you listen. The story is narrated by the warden, who says, “I’m gonna start our story where the execution process really begins. At five minutes to six, I’m sitting in my office. I get up from my chair, put on my jacket, and walk back to the death house” where the inmate has spent the afternoon with the chaplain. At 6:00, a call comes from the governor and the attorney general, giving the go-ahead. “I go down there and I call his name and tell him it’s time to come with me to the next room.”

The warden tells the condemned man to sit on the gurney and lie down with his head on the pillow. The metal gurney has white pads and brown straps with big silver buckles. Each person on the tie-down team is assigned a different portion of the inmate’s body — head, right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg. Simultaneously while he is lying down, each team member puts a strap across his portion. All done in 30 seconds. Some inmates cry, some sweat, some have the smell of anxiety, of fear. The medical team inserts needles and IVs. The chaplain puts his hand on the inmate’s leg, below the knee. He “can feel the trembling, the fear that’s there, the heart surging…You can see it pounding through their shirt.” Witnesses are escorted in, the condemned man says his last words, and the warden gives the signal to the executioner behind a mirrored glass window by removing his glasses. The lethal injection begins to flow — three drugs that do the job. At 6:20 a doctor pronounces death.

On the tape, each person on the execution team describes his part and the details he remembers and the impact it has — short tight sentences that come quick and linger and haunt.

We in the classroom were there in that death chamber. We heard voices, we heard metal sounds, we heard doors close, we heard hearts beat. We learned the facts about how an inmate is put to death. We felt the emotions. Sniffles sounded across the room. We were immersed, engaged, affected.

I could feel the leg of the condemned man tremble uncontrollably under my hand those last few seconds.

I need to be able to accomplish this effect in “War Stories.” How in the world am I going to do that? I must take my trusty yellow magic marker and begin. I’ve got lots of crafting to do.

NOTE: For all interested creative nonfiction writers, Lee Gutkind, the Godfather behind Creative Nonfiction, will be holding “The 5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction workshop in Franklin, Tennessee, September 13, 2008. ASK ME FOR MORE INFO.

Lee Gutkind

Three weeks from today, the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference will be held in Oxford, Mississippi.