‘You can break the action at times and give us background.’
Say you’re writing about the Little League team winning the Little League World Series and you’re doing a narrative. That’s a dramatic story, but it’s got a lot of players and a lot of people, kids and parents and coaches. You want background about who these people are, but you also want to tell the story of the action on the field. You can break that action at appropriate times, usually at dramatic ones, and stop and tell me something about the people involved. You’re in the last game against the favored Chinese team; you’re clinging to a one-run lead in the eighth inning, and the biggest kid on the Chinese team hits a ball over the head of the left fielder. He turns his back to the plate. He’s running. He leaps for the ball. And how did he get on this field? Who is this kid?
He’s from Australia. His father moved here because the international company he works for changed his job and moved him to Connecticut. It’s interesting. That stuff better not be dull. It needs to be interesting and important to be there. How many times can you do that in a story? It depends on how long the story is. If it’s a long enough serial narrative, you can do it for every starter on the team, but you might not want to if the piece is shorter or if some of the other kids’ stories aren’t as interesting.
You can break the action at times and give us background. And readers want to know that background. That kid who’s going to make that catch, you want to know who he is. So that’s something that works really well. —Bruce DeSilva
Get your editors ‘to see what you’re seeing.’
I happen to work with just some wonderful editors, including Neville Green who does this really great thing that I would encourage all of you to encourage your editors to do, if you have to motivate your editor. He gets out of the newsroom and joins me at the story. If you find an editor like Neville, hang on to him. And if your editor is not quite as motivated, get him to see what you’re seeing. They are your first readers. Get them to see and believe and understand why you are doing what you’re doing and get them caught up in the lives of the people that you’re caught up in. —Tom French
‘Inch your way there.’
Editors need to put things in the paper they can count on, and they like to put things in the paper that make a difference. Narrative is a hard sell that way. That’s why I really encourage you to think about it as a paragraph, a line, a small story. Inch your way there. And the other thing you need to know about editors to get them on your side is if you come to an editor with an abstract concept and say “I want to write a narrative piece,” what the editor hears is, “Oh my God, investment of time and pain and no sure delivery of product.” And this editor has this yawning, gaping hole that is the white space of the newspaper to think about. If you can learn to deliver up small pieces of narrative along the way while you cover the city council and you bring in a weekend piece which is a profile of one of the council members, or a small narrative of how a certain piece of legislation got passed, and you deliver that time and time again and your editor sees you can do that, pretty soon you buy yourself the right to go and say, “Now I’m going to do a narrative. I want to do a story on X.” But it has to be specific, it has to be tied to what’s going on in your community. —Jacqui Banaszynski
‘The more you do it and the better you get…’
The more you do it and the better you get at it, I think the easier it is to convince your editors that this is a fine way to report a story. —Isabel Wilkerson
‘Just sit there and just keep going at it.’
When you’re writing, sometimes you think, “Oh, this is terrible. This is the worst writing I’ve done on this book. Other parts of the book came easy, and this is coming hard.” And sometimes you’ll go back and look at those crappy days and you’ll keep more from the crappy days than you do from the good days and sometimes vice versa. You just have to sit there. It’ll even out. Sit there and work. Sit there and work, whether it comes or not. Whether it comes easy or whether it comes hard. Just sit there and just keep going at it.
If you get it done, you get it done. If you don’t, you don’t. Don’t worry about it too much. Forget about those sort of daily deadlines. I mean, it’s difficult if you’re coming from journalism because you’re so used to it there. The idea of sitting in front of a computer for two hours and not coming away with something usable is very foreign to a lot of journalists. But to fiction writers, it’s absolutely normal. You can work all day and end up with a page. You come back to it that night and you look at it and you say, “That’s wrong. I’ve gone off on the wrong direction. It’s got to go.” There. You can’t worry about it. You just cannot worry about it.
There’s a reason why you’re stuck there, and though you don’t know it, somehow your subconscious mind is telling you, “Stop. Wait. You haven’t figured this out.” That may be when you go back and look at that outline and say, “Gee, this is all backwards. I’ve got to fix this somehow.” Yes? But again, if you didn’t sit at your machine, you’d never find that out. Robert Frost said, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Absolutely right. It’s a lot easier if you’re tied to the chair. —Stewart O’Nan