Writing

Programming Note

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During the holidays, I gave some thought to the state of my various writing projects and aspirations, and decided to make a few changes.

  1. My mystery novel will be available for purchase on February 1. I’ve started work on my second book, which almost feels like it’s writing itself. Details on where and how to buy will be coming soon.
  2. The content here at kevinbroom.com will be shifting. I’ve done mostly Wizards analysis here, but that will be ending. Instead, I’ll be more focused on writing, the writing life, and artistic expression. These topics occupy a bigger place in my mind than sports ever has, and I hope readers find my thoughts interesting.
  3. My Wizards content is moving it to Bullets Forever, which has long been a source of terrific Wizards coverage and analysis. I’m thrilled they were willing to add me to the chorus, and looking forward to being part of the team.
  4. I’m going to partner with my friend Ben Becker to attempt a Wizards podcast that will be distributed through Bullets Forever. We’re gearing up to begin production, and hope to have our first edition available in January.

That’s all for now.

The Opening Line Problem

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I’m working on the final revision to my mystery novel, which will be available for purchase in about a month. This is supposed to more of a proofread — just double-checking for typos, misspellings, wrong words, etc. But as I keep reading, there’s a thought nagging at me: the story is starting in the wrong place.

Back story: Many revisions ago, I kidnapped a chapter from the middle and lashed it to the front of the book. Chapter 1. Why? I loved the opening line it gave me:

As best I can remember it was the first time I’d awakened naked and face down in a pool of my own blood.

See what I mean?

Chapter 1 then became about the protagonist extracting himself from a no-tell motel — an event that actually happened in the middle of the story’s timeline. Chapter 2 leaps back a few weeks to the “beginning.” From there the story is told chronologically.

This is a fairly common dramatic technique, and it worked for me as I wrote the book. But now? I’m thinking it might be better pluck what’s now Chapter 1 and replant it in its original home — Chapter 13. That means I have to write a new opening.

Which isn’t really that big of a problem. It just wasn’t what I expected to be doing at this point.

The real challenge, of course, will be crafting a new opening line. And, I admit I’m more than a little nutty about opening lines. I often wander bookstores reading opening lines to see what grabs me. I’ve read dozens (maybe hundreds) of books out of my normal reading genres based strictly on a killer opening.

Some of my favorites:

  • Call me Ishmael. — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  • The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse. — Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript
  • Maman died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure. — Albert Camus, The Stranger
  • When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through the wrinkled hood, Glock first. — Richard Start (Donald Westlake), Backflash
  • All this happened, more or less. — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
  • You better not never tell nobody but God. — Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  • He was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken. — Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. — John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meaney
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. — George Orwell, 1984
  • I am an invisible man. — Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. — J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • I was arrested in Eno’s Diner. — Lee Child, The Killing Floor
  • I sat across the table from the man who had battered and tortured and brutalized me nearly thirty years ago. — Lorenzo Carcaterra, Sleepers
  • It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. — Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse
  • When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man. — Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), Firebreak

That’s enough for now.

Writing Lessons from Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival

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On Monday, the Kennedy Center dropped curtain on its 12th Annual Page-to-Stage festival — a weekend of script readings and open rehearsals of plays and musicals being developed by DC-area theater companies. I’ve been going for awhile now, and I watched all of two live reads and part of another this weekend.

The two I watched in full — Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song and The Music of Nina Simone — have great potential as the individuals involved in those productions continue to raise money and do the work necessary to bring them to the stage. The “partial watch” play — Civilizing Lusby — has a good premise (and therefore good potential), but didn’t hold my attention.

For a writer, live reads are useful because they put the spotlight on the written word. There’s no staging or pyrotechnics or spectacle to distract from what the writer has put to paper. That’s slightly less true in musicals, such as the two diva plays, because there’s singing (and the singing was fantastic), but most of the audience’s experience is in hearing actors speak words and in hearing a narrator read scene descriptions.

Here are some writing lessons I took from the weekend:

  1. Thou shalt avoid exposition. Don’t write anything “so the audience will understand.” A couple years ago, I saw a Page-to-Stage read of a play about Lincoln. There were lines like, “Hello Mary, my dear wife of 19 years…” In the Ella production, there were multiple lines of dialogue that had characters saying they were backstage at X venue or saying what year it was or talking about another character using first and last name. The trouble with these lines is that a) they’re boring; and b) the delivery ends up being stilted because they’re not words actual humans would speak. Work necessary exposition into the story as ammunition for conflicts.
  2. Thou shalt get to the point. In Civilizing Lusby, the first 10 pages or so were devoted to a family dispute about a rambunctious teen aged girl who smiled at too many men for her mother’s comfort. Yawn. There was a little tidbit thrown in about the father needing some banker’s son on his side for something, which I assume they got to later on because I left at that point. According to the description in the program, the play was about a Chesapeake waterman taking his revenge after a couple businessmen have his shack condemned so they could build a railroad. The high-spirited daughter flirting with every man she meets was worth a couple minutes — not the first 10.
  3. Thou shalt present characters, not characterization. Civilizing Lusby did this best. The wild girl, the disapproving mother, the adoring father trying to be stern for the sake of his wife but not quite making it — these felt like real people. The Nina Simone show did a reasonable job as well, presenting a first-person “as told by” story that gave her take on her story. The Ella Fitzgerald show — not so much. They characterized her by talking about the pictures on her dressing room wall, having her fire her cousin/assistant, and having her say “shit” now and then. But, the non-linear presentation left the feeling that Ella mainly had stuff happen to her — NOT that she was an active and aggressive force in achieving personal goals. Which leads me to…
  4. Thou shalt give your protagonist clear goals. The contrast between the Nina Simone and Ella scripts couldn’t be more evident on this one. At any point, the director could have called a stop and asked the audience what Simone wanted. The answers would have flowed — to be the first black classical pianist, to get into Curtis, to find love, to avoid the IRS, to come to peace with her father, to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement…and so on. Simone had a series of goals that shifted as she moved through her life — many of which she failed to achieve. But, the point here is that the audience always knew what they were. Not so, in Ella’s story where she never seemed to want anything except to “sing pretty for the people.” They presented major events in her life, of course, but Ella seemed almost a bystander to them, not the cause of those events. While that can happen “in real life,” it a) makes for bad drama, and b) is unlikely for someone who accomplished as much as she did in life.

Those are the lessons I got from Page-to-Stage this year — avoid exposition, get to the point, create characters NOT characterization, and give your characters clear goals.