Friday, November 20, 2009

Your Story is Its Own World

Gretchen Giles sums up her job as a journalist in an eggshell: “People tell me their story. Then I filter it, shape it and send it back to the world.”

She got her start writing film reviews for a community paper. At the time she was a newly divorced mother of two, with a Master's degree in English Literature, and waited tables on the California coast. Her first assignment, a review of “Schindler’s List”, took her six days to write. “Now it would take me 45 minutes,” she says.
Giles believes that craft can be taught. As editor of the alternative weekly, the North Bay Bohemian, she trains her interns and staff how to write “and pays them poorly as they learn.”

During a recent 2-hour workshop through the Writers Forum of Petaluma, she explored questions that haunt emerging writers. Full of witticisms, Giles shared tricks of the trade such as how one keeps a sense of beauty in prose “without going over the flowery edge into a bowl of potpourri.”

Analyzing the structures of magazine-style journalism, Giles advised us to “seduce the reader all the way to the end”. Unlike the inverted pyramid used in traditional news, which presents all the most important information at the top, narrative stories shouldn’t give everything away in the first paragraph: “Your first graph is your dinner out with the candles still lit.”

So how can you keep a reader engaged?
  • “Build the egg.” Bring a story full circle by thematically balancing the top and the bottom. Start somewhere and revisit it at the end. Mirror the story “like a Rorschach”.  
  • Cut words out to make the reading seamless: “Killing your lovelies is the way you get there.” However, if you’ve gone through the trouble to put important things in a story, "don’t orphan them. Don’t leave them by the side of the road.”
  • If you laugh out loud, take it out. Usually it means you’re the only one who thinks it’s funny.
  • Use the following tools “as sparingly as plutonium”:  
    • Parentheses: “Mostly they indicate you’ve grown a third ear and don’t know what to do with it. You need to cut it off.” 
    • She screamed, He denoted, They announced: Substituting the simplicity of said can cast color on a character, but the reader may notice too much.
    Giles also advised what to do when
    • ...your story is overrun with clichés: Keep them as placeholders and rewrite with language original to you. Use positive, aggressive language.
    • ... a topic seems insurmountable and complex: “Write one thread that resonates for you in a story. Find one string you can pull.”
    • ... you aren’t sure what the point of a story is or where it’s headed: Ask, “What’s the question the story strives to answer?"
    “Your story is its own world. What world does it speak?”


    soulyluna said...

    Interesting post. While I'm working on teaching writing strategies to young writers, I often question my own. I've no formal training, but I do consider opening that door to better my teaching at some point. So my question for you is, how closely do you as a writer follow these writing guidelines?

    Nicole Zimmerman said...

    Tegan, you're a lovely writer with an innate sense of storytelling and craft, so I'm sure you'll teach your students well. However, I do encourage you to 'open that door'. I'm still busting it open. Join a writing group, take a class, attend a workshop or conference. (I know, who has time?) As far as following these guidelines: I trust Giles' advice because she's a sharp editor and writer, and because what she said resonated with what I've already learned, read and tried. At the same time, every writer has to find his / her own style, voice, etc. and she was speaking particularly about journalism. I do love the egg image and find that most of my stories are circular like that.

    Joanna Jenkins said...

    Hi Nicole, I've had this post open all day long and have read and re-read it three times! It's almost like being at the workshop. THANK YOU. There's some really good advice to learn from.... "Build the egg", "find one string you can pull", "What's the question the story strives to answer?" I've bookmarked this post and will refer back to it often.

    Thanks again and have a great Thanksgiving!


    Nicole Zimmerman said...

    So glad you found the post helpful. I also sent it to Gretchen Giles, who immediately responded, "You did a GREAT job with the blog post and got everything right; thanks for sending that along (and for writing it)." She's also going to look over and critique something I submitted to (and was rejected from) the Bohemian 1 1/2 years ago.

    Keep on cracking that egg!

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