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?"