Talking Turkey and Cooking Goose

In the previous episode, Kaye George, author of the Immy Duckworthy, PI mystery series, had just suggested members of Austin Mystery Writers publish an anthology of short stories. Her proposal sent me into paroxysms of insecurity and doubt: could I write two stories of acceptable quality in the time allotted? Or would I embarrass myself and slink away, ostracized from the group, never to plot again?

Now, the rest of the story:

The burning questions posed in She Cannot Get Away have been answered, in part. I can write at least one story in the time allotted me. I’ve already done so. Almost.

As with every project, the key is to start early. I started two years ago. In a retreat workshop sponsored by the Writers’ League of Texas, I wrote a fragment beginning with the following sentence:

The day I found Mama stirring ground glass into the eggs she was about to scramble, I took the eggs away from her and called a family conference.

Some readers have seen that sentence before. They may be sick of it. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it, fizzing over what comes next. My critique group suggested it’s the beginning of a novel, but I don’t think the situation has the necessary elasticity. In my hands, a novel starting with four siblings plotting to “put Mama out of her misery” could end up reading like the story board of a Road Runner cartoon: Children drop a metaphorical anvil off a bridge, miss Mama by a hair, light the fuse on a stick of dynamite, miss Mama by a hair, find themselves hoist with their own petard. Over and over for three hundred pages.

Shakespeare, given the same situation, would no doubt have come up with something fresh and original. But Shakespeare didn’t see as many Warner Brothers cartoons as I have. If he had, his creative faculty might have been warped, too.

Well. On July 4 of this year, I posted here that I was optimistic about the chances of getting a story out of the ground glass. Today I report that the two-year-old fragment is now part of a short story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. At our meeting last week, Austin Mystery Writers gave it their approval. Except for one thing. And I knew before a word was said exactly what it would be.

“But nobody died,” said Kaye.

I said I knew that.

“But it’s a murder mystery,” said Gale. “Somebody has to die.”

The three critique partners sitting  the other side of the table nodded.  In unison.

“I was going for subtlety,” I said. “It’s a death of the spirit.”

They stared at me. I stared back.

“But somebody really has to die,” said Kaye.

And then five people said they didn’t understand the last line. I had written the entire story so I could use that line, and no one understood what it meant.

I continued to stare. A string of pejoratives ran through my brain, notably philistines, peasants, and bourgeoisie. Finally I spoke.

“Thank you,” I said.

Then my friends began throwing out ideas for endings they preferred to mine, in each of which someone died. I sighed repeatedly and said things like, Yeahhhh, and Okayyyy, and I guessss…

People who tell inconvenient truths are so irritating. Especially when they gang up on you.

We moved on to discuss someone else’s submission. We chatted a while. We gathered our books and papers and parted.

I didn’t mention they were correct: The ending as written was weak. It fell flat. When I walked into the meeting, I already knew it was wrong. And I knew they wouldn’t let me get away with it.

Thirty minutes later, I sat across town in a writing work group, staring at my laptop monitor and thinking, Kaye gave me the perfect ending. All the suggestions were good, but hers works on multiple levels. It’s so right. Why didn’t I think of it myself?

Oh, who cares about why. What matters is that Kaye thought of it, and that she and four other writers talked turkey and made me listen.

If they hadn’t–and if I hadn’t–I’d have had a bigger problem than the embarrassment of

not turning in a story for the anthology. I’d have faced the humiliation of turning in a story whose last line four highly literate women couldn’t decipher.

Critique groups meet a variety of needs: for inspiration, encouragement, advice, mentoring, ideas, retreats, gossip…and for talking turkey. Carefully. Kindly. Intelligently. Honestly. Firmly. Timely.

I owe Austin Mystery Writers–big time. Because I’m convinced that if they hadn’t talked turkey to me, my literary goose would have thoroughly cooked.

AMW- logo

(Okay, guys, what do you have to say about that ending?)

ROW80, AMW, Dorothy, & Tallulah

Promotional photo of Tallulah Bankhead.
Promotional photo of Tallulah Bankhead. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I owe A Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80) another Wednesday check-in. Fortunately, I finally have something significant to report.

My original goals were to sleep (get to bed before midnight, I believe); eat well (get off the white stuff, processed foods, added salt, sweeteners); and show up at critique meetings with  something to be critiqued (in other words, write).

Before I discuss progress, I’ll note that Austin Mystery Writers (AMW) is alive and well. Several members have been on hiatus, dealing with other projects (such as work), another can’t attend regularly (again, work), and this week our Grand Pooh-Bah moved a hundred miles to the north. Only two non-Pooh Bahs remained to stay the course, and we considered four eyes insufficient to ferret out the flaws in our respective manuscripts.

Last night, however, concern vanished. Two new members joined us, a third has promised to drop in next week, and two others have listed themselves as maybes.

American writer Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
American writer Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being in a critique has been a good experience for me. In addition to ideas and advice, I’ve received  encouragement and support for my writing and for my personal life. My partners have helped me over some rough spots in the past couple of years.

I’ve also learned a lot. Since we’ve been together, one partner has published a novel and has more in line for publication. Two others have completed manuscripts. While in one sense I’ve been stalled–scrambling down bunny trails, trying to get my plot under control–I’ve learned about the business of writing.

As to my own WIP: Pieces continue to fall into place. Listening to a presentation at the Austin Sisters in Crime meeting last Sunday, I had a brainstorm–a detail that would make a central character’s motivation much more credible. I flipped to the next page in my notebook and scribbled it down. I’ve also had another idea about reframing the novel to update it a bit. When I realized that Molly hadn’t once, in nearly three hundred pages, gone online, I pulled out Chapter One and inserted Internet.

Today I retyped Chapter One. The experts say not to do that–especially considering the number of times I’ve rewritten it, trying to get the foundation right–but I’m not revising so much as remembering. It’s been through many incarnations, and typing requires me to read more closely than I would if only my eyes were involved. I’ll continue this process for three or four more chapters, inserting new segments where appropriate (I hope!). Projected changes add originality. They give Audrey Ann, a minor character, more opportunity for mischief-making. Audrey Ann is a hoot, and I look forward to spending more time with her.

(One of my critique partners suggested Audrey Ann would make a good victim, but she’s too much fun to kill. Very much like my first intended victim, whom I couldn’t bring myself to knock off. If this becomes a trend, I’m in big trouble.)

I’ve added a progress meter to the sidebar on the left. Five percent represents progress on the current draft–in other words, what I retyped today. I’ve been working on this project, and talking and writing about it, for a long time. I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve eked out just four thousand words.

Now, as to my plan for eating real food: Sometimes I have and sometimes I haven’t. I have, however, dropped nineteen pounds since the first of the year, so I claim at least modified success.

(Who am I trying to kid? I rock.)

Regarding sleep: It’s after 1:00 a.m. No excuses.

One last thing about Austin Mystery Writers: When the other left-behind critique partner mentioned we might need to put several of the coffee shop’s tables together to handle the potentially large turnout, it occurred to me that if we works things right, AMW could become the Austin equivalent of the Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table. A heady thought. Critique partner said I could be Dorothy Parker. She wants to be Tallulah Bankhead. I wish I could be the glamorous one, but with my evil tongue, Dorothy P. is right down my alley. More’s the pity. I’ll try to be nice.

*****

Move over, Cyd Charisse

I received a phone call last week from Lucia Zimmitti, an editor who spoke at the Texas Trail Writers Roundup this spring. In mid-July, I’d sent her the first five pages of my manuscript. She reported that she’d read them and that they’re ready for query. She said she believes agents who read them will ask to see more.

Music to my ears. I was reluctant to tell her how long I’ve worked and how many revisions it’s taken to get those five pages agent-ready. Lucia said not to worry about time, that some novels are ten years in the making. Actually, it’s the ten years part that worries me, but I know it’s going to take as long as it takes.

After discussing specifics, Lucia asked how much more I have.

A pile of pages. A stack of scenes. Words, words, words, but not in order.

I described where I am in the process and told her how I work. She said not to worry.

When I hung up the phone, I was tempted to dance around the apartment.  But I didn’t. My feeling of ecstasy wasn’t pure. It was an alloy, producing calm rather than chaos.

It’s good when people like what I’ve written. But having a professional say those pages show promise is more than good. It’s validating. It means the time, the effort, the embarrassing, sick-making drafts aren’t wasted.

It means that when people ask what I do, I can drop the self-mocking half-smile, the apologetic, “I’m working on a novel. But of course, EVerybody in Austin is working on a NOvel.” I can look them in the eye and say, “I write.” I can remove the quotation marks from “novel.”

I’m tempted here to insert the usual disclaimer: It’s only five pages. I haven’t completed the manuscript. The five present-perfect are future-imperfect–because, with all the twists and turns of drafting, they will have to be tweaked.

But I won’t apologize. Hearing Lucia’s assessment of the intro to Chapter One changed how I perceive both my writing and myself. I’m no longer a dilettante. I’m a writer. I have goals to meet, a manuscript to finish, and no room for excuses.

Figurative language isn’t my forte, but to clarify, I’ll give it a shot.

It’s like when I was ten years old and my Uncle Donald took me out to a pasture in his beat-up 1950 Chevy pickup and taught me to drive. I started out popping the clutch (“Let it out sloooow.“), grinding the gears (“Put in the CLUTCH!”), killing the engine (“Give it some GAS!”), turning the key, popping the clutch, jolting the passenger, bouncing across old furrows. But after a few lessons I got the hang of it and was driving along the turn row, changing gears without incident.

A couple of months later, my father put me behind the wheel of a ’56 Bel Air, which had fewer gears and no clutch at all, and let me drive home from the farm (“Don’t rush up to the stop sign, eeease up to it.”) In due time, I got my license and soon was cruising down the freeway, feeling like a driver.

After I’d invested time, energy, and angst wrestling with the clutch and grinding the gears, finally holding that license brought not only satisfaction but also a feeling of maturity.

The future won’t be a joyride. There will be (here comes the disclaimer) traffic jams and detours and wrong turns down one-way streets. And worse. Like the time I was on my way to the university and my car slid on a patch of once-in-a-decade Texas ice and landed in the ditch facing the wrong direction, right across from my father’s workplace. (“I told you to go slow.” “I DID. I was just doing 50.”)

When Lucia and I finished speaking, it was as if she’d handed me a license to write. I felt settled. Serene. Competent. Equipped for the task at hand.

Cyd Charisse, move over. I feel a dance coming on.

**********

Lucia Zimmitti is president and founder of Manuscript Rx.

P.S.  I did not try to perfect the first five pages before moving on. I obsess and compulse, but not to that extent.

 

Retread: Why I go to critique group

I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s just nothing no hope.

She read chapter 13 and said, But it’s so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.

I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.

And she said, But the middle could be revised edited it has promise.

I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.

And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.

And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.

**********

The post above originally appeared on Whiskertips, September 13, 2009. A modified version is posted here by popular request.

Humility check

In the previous post, I wrote a paean to myself in honor of receiving a positive critique in a recent manuscript contest. I was shameless. Because the judge wrote Fannie Flagg twice on the score sheet, I used the name five times in my anthem.

I was moved to lavish self-aggrandizement by memory of my mother, who often quoted Damon Runyon: “He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.”

Today I do a bit of un-tooting. Below is a list of things the song of myself didn’t include.

1. My entry did not advance to the finals.

2. The judge read only the first ten pages of the potential novel.

3. When the judge said that to get an agent I’ll have to find one who “gets” Texas and the South, she meant she “gets” Texas and the South and, as a result, my small-town setting and my dialogue.  If she’d been unfamiliar with the vernacular, I wouldn’t have fared so well.

4. The selection process is subjective. I once wrote an entire post on this topic, but the story bears repeating: Five years ago an entry I submitted received a score of 80. The next year, in the same contest, the very same (unrevised) entry garnered 18 points. Judge #1 said the entry was funny. Judge #2 said that I should take a lot of workshops, read more books, and use MS Word to identify my egregious grammatical errors. And that my pre-teen protagonist’s parents were guilty of child abuse.

Oh dear. I thought I’d made peace with that. My point: if I’d drawn another judge this year, I might have come out with a much lower score, and my paean would be different in both tone and content.

5. In a sentence beginning, “My concern,” the judge says she “would have liked” something that last year’s judge, who read version #1 of the ten pages, would have liked as well. I’ll have to fix that–change the material without sacrificing the current dialogue, pacing, tone…

6. The novel isn’t a novel. It’s potential. It’s a WIP.

7. There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.

To summarize–Opening that envelope and finding compliments inside encouraged me. It lifted my spirits. It showed me a glimmer of hope.

But it didn’t complete the manuscript, get me an agent, offer me a contract, hand me an advance, put me on the best-seller list, fill my coffers to overflowing, or ensure me a spot on Letterman.

In short, I have work to do. Continued self-aggrandizement will only get in the way.

After all, I’m already fighting background noise. Radio station KFKD plays continuously in my right ear, reciting my virtues. The constant yammering makes it hard to focus.

On the other hand, the “rap songs of self-loathing” pouring into my left ear don’t exactly speed me on my way either.

So I’ll take the critique sheet from the envelope, and with a loving hand smooth it flat, and place it in a spot where it will be visible as I write.

Fannie Flagg has been in the back of my mind for years. It’s time to move her right up front.

********************

Thanks to Ann Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, for exposing radio station KFKD for what it is.

The best thing about blogs

…is that you can fix them.

This morning, while reading through the previous post, I noticed several phrases I didn’t like. If I’d let the piece sit for a few days, I might have discarded them instead of allowing them to become public.

No matter. With a click of the Edit Post button, I deleted them and substituted something better.

If I decide something better is actually worse, I can click again and make other arrangements. I can do that now or tomorrow or next year. As long as WordPress, my Internet provider, and I hold out, I can revise to my heart’s content.

I can fix that first predicate to conform to the rule given me by my high school English teacher at Prairie Lea High School (Hi, Patsy): Don’t use second person.

…is that they can be fixed.

I can fix the revised predicate to conform to the other rule given me by my high school English teacher: Avoid passive voice.

…is that the blogger can fix them.

I can fix the second revised predicate to conform to the rule given me by Strunk and White, my paralegal school instructors at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and my mother: Don’t use that to introduce a noun clause.

…is the blogger can fix them. [I contend {that} this rule must be used on a case-by-case basis.]

I can fix the third revised predicate to conform to the rule given me by my fourth grade teacher at North Heights Elementary School: I don’t want you using easy little words when you write sentences, either. I want you to use big words, like contraction and determine.

…is the blogger can revisit and make alterations to them, and in so doing refine and expand upon his original meaning.

I can fix the fourth revised predicate to conform to the rule given me by Ken Macrorie at the Bread Loaf School of English: Don’t be stuffy. Stop writing Engfish.

…is that you can fix them.

I can even decide that my mother, my paralegal school instructors, and Strunk and White are correct about that:

…is you can fix them.

And if in the far distant future I look back on this post and realize it’s drivel, I can delete it altogether.

In fact, I can wipe out the entire blog.

The best thing about this blog is that it’s mine.

An Ever-widening Wilderness

Okay. Enough of this sweetness-and-light, writing-is-my-life, revising-is-a-glorious-process, retreats-are-so-inspiring, the-daily-miracle-will-come baloney. Writing stinks.

Last night, no matter how hard I tried to make the technician at the other end of the line understand that the problem was caused by a short in the ground wire on the keyboard, and was surely related to the March 30 keyboard malfunction, he kept insisting that my hard drive is going out, and he made it clear that if I wanted to get to bed before 1:00 a.m., I’d stop asking questions and agree with him.

Back in the good old days, when faced with equipment failure, I just asked my daddy to get out his pocket knife and sharpen my pencil. But now I have to wait for the external hard drive to arrive, and back everything up–and I don’t want to hear one word about not having it backed up already; the critical things are on a flash drive and in my e-mail–and then call the service technician and tell him I’m ready for him to replace the hard drive. Of course, he will have already have called me, and I’ll have told him I’ll call him after I’ve received the external hard drive and run the backup.

That was Plan #2. Plan #1 was to send the corrupted hard drive to the factory and lose everything.

It’s enough to turn one into a raving Luddite.

Then there’s The Chair. For the past two years, I’ve sat in a recliner, feet up,  laptop on my lap, and typed away. The most discomfort I’ve felt has come from Ernest draping himself over my left forearm, and that’s not too terrible. At fifteen pounds, he’s not heavy enough to completely stop blood flow to my fingers. As long as he keeps his paws off the touch pad, I can work.

But now I’m sentenced to the desktop, which means sitting in The Chair. I love The Chair. It’s been in the family for over a hundred years. It’s an office chair. It wasn’t meant for sitting. A little while ago I sneaked upstairs and stole my husband’s vintage-1950s plastic chair with the wide contoured seat. It’s some improvement but I might as well make an appointment with the massage therapist while I’m thinking about it.

And what else? The Just for the Hell of It Writers meet tomorrow morning, and my critique partner, bless her heart, has decreed we must show up with fifty pages. Each. She has well over fifty pages of a coherent draft. I have a zillion pages of nonsense, rubbish, bilge, bunk, drivel, gibberish, hooey, hogwash, piffle, stultiloquence, and tripe. And that’s just the beginning. I haven’t even started on the adjectives.

Actually, it’s not all tripe. Some parts are decent. If they were adjacent parts, I’d be working on them now. But they’re scattered, and I’ll have to go looking for them, piece them together, and then fill in the blank spaces.

Furthermore, I’m sick of the characters. I’ve known them for a long time, and you know what they say about familiarity and contempt. If I had my way, I’d knock off the whole bunch of them: Miss Pinksie and all the suspects and Molly and her cousin Claudia and the Rat Butlerish love-hate interest and those cute twins. And the goat.

In addition, last week I received the Silver Lining Award, which made me smile, and here I am frowning before I’ve even had time to pass it on.

And to top it all off, I need to lose 900 pounds. By Monday.

The way things are going, that’s more likely to happen than my turning up tomorrow with fifty pages in hand.

In summary, writing is Sheer Hell. It’s a Vast Wasteland, like the tangle of cholla, prickly pear, dead brush, and dried grass in the photograph at the beginning of this piece, with splashes of yellow flowers and green trees representing false hope in an ever-widening wilderness.

Not that I’m complaining, of course.

***********************

The photograph at the head of this post was taken at Paisano Baptist Encampment, near Alpine, Texas, during the Texas Mountain Trail Writers Writing Round-up. Paisano is a beautiful place. The opinions expressed in this post reflect the writer’s thoughts about writing and not about Paisano or the TMTW retreat. In fact, she likes cactus and dried grass and would love to drive so far back into a mesquite pasture that she can’t find her way out, an unlikely event in 21st-century Central Texas.

Tea gowns and white linen

The Just for the Hell of It Writers leave tomorrow morning for the Texas Mountain Trail Writers 19th Annual Writing Round-up. We’ll stay two nights at Paisano Baptist Encampment near Alpine, where the retreat will be held. Then we’ll stay another night in Alpine and head home Monday morning.

I’ll save the program for a future post, except to say it includes a Cowboy Breakfast on Sunday morning. I don’t know exactly what a Cowboy Breakfast entails, but I’m hoping it involves gravy.

The 500-word optional and fun assignment that was perfect three weeks ago turned out to be not so perfect, so I’ve spent the past several days revising. I had to add some material, which meant I had to take things out, which led to taking out other things, which led to…a lot of complaining.

It also led to research. I spent five hours hopping around the Internet so I could remove dotted swiss and it, and substitute tea gowns and white linen. Or I hope I substituted tea gowns. At one point I had lingerie dresses in that spot, but I was afraid my readers might not be familiar with the term. The story is about a one-room school teacher. I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.

I made other changes, too. The nameless narrator now has a name, and two other characters were rechristened. Vilbry Hollan is now Milroy Dunne. Harley Lubeck is now Harvey. I had nothing against the original names, except that I got tongue-tied every time I tried to pronounce them. Since I have to read the story aloud, I thought it wise to choose something I wouldn’t trip over. I kept saying Harvey anyway, even when Harley was staring up at me in 12-point Times New Roman.

I may also have to do something about the Imogene that appears twice in the narrative. The child pronounces her name with a long i, but I don’t always remember to.

Several times I’ve asked myself what difference it makes, long i or short i. The answer is, it just does. Imogene is a figment of my imagination, but she pronounces her name with a long i, and she wants me to say it that way too.

So that is the story of my week: wrestling with words. Of course, after all the grumbling and the shuffling, I have a better product. Characters’ motivations are clearer. The plot is improved. Dialogue is smoother.

Revision worked. My perfect story is now more perfect.

I hate it when that happens.

It’s late and I have a long day before me and the laundry is finished–that’s why I’m still awake, I had to do a load of laundry or go sockless, not what I want to do in Alpine in April–anyway, I shall end this post and go to bed.

But here’s the thing: if I saved this and then revised it tomorrow morning and posted it before I left town, it would be a much better piece of writing, and probably half as long as it is now. And it wouldn’t have sentences like the two previous.

But no. I’ve done my revision for the week. Enough is enough.

And if anyone wants to get out the red pencil–be my guest.

Letting the miracle happen

I ended an earlier post with the sentence, “There’s a hole I have to write myself out of.”

Parse that and you’ll find it equal parts wish, bravado, pretense, and humbug.

I had no idea how to write myself out of that hole. I thought I’d have to scrap “A Day in the Life of a Rancher’s Wife” and replace it with “A Day in the Life of a One-Room Schoolteacher.” Or anything else I could both start and finish.

But I gave it a shot, opened the document, and began revising. For the Rancher’s Wife, that meant squeezing 700 words into under 500, just in case I came up with a conclusion.

And in the middle of all that deleting, adding, shuffling, it happened. I knew how to end the story.

By the time the epiphany occurred, it was after midnight. I tacked on a couple of sentences to hold the thought and the  next day continued reworking the piece. The result is a story I’m satisfied with. Almost. There’s still time for tweaking.

When I was teaching English in the late ’70s, the latest fashion was to teach the writing process: brainstorming, prewriting, writing, revising, editing, polishing, proofreading. Sometimes prewriting was put before brainstorming. Sometimes editing and polishing were rolled into one. It was neat and tidy and linear.

But there was no step to describe that epiphany.

If there’s frustration here–and there is–it’s that I can’t explain that missing step. I had given up. I wasn’t trying think of a solution. I was playing with words. And then I knew.

Maybe that’s the heart of the process: relax, play, stay in the now, allow ideas to come. Maybe the process isn’t a process at all.

I’ve read that creativity has something to do with the frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, the temporal lobe, the limbic brain, alpha brain rhythms, gamma brain rhythms, warm showers, long walks, and happiness. When scientists have it all observed and assimilated and indexed, I’ll try to understand.

For the present, however, I like to think that extra step is Gertrude Stein’s miracle.

Not knowing. Knowing.

And the process is letting the miracle happen.

Start with the headline…dear

 

“SCORPIO (Oct. 24-Nov. 21): No one can argue with your powers of conversation. You make language dance. Insightful without being overbearing, you’re a joy to be around. And you are about to meet your match.” ~ Holiday Mathis, “Horoscopes,” American Statesman [Austin, TX] 6 Jan. 2010, final ed. : D2.


Ha! My horoscope is way behind. I met my match years ago.

It was the fall of 1999, and I was right in the middle of one of my best stories, when my husband began to wave his hand in that circular  motion–the universal symbol for “Get on with it”– and said, “Start with the headline.”

He was actually my pre-husband then, and I hadn’t known him long, and he was telling me I wasn’t a joy to be around. I burst into tears.

He patted me and apologized. (And no doubt wondered what he was apologizing for.)

I cried some more, mourning our relationship’s untimely end. Because I was incapable of starting with the headline.

I am a Southerner. When I share an anecdote or impart information–such as the conversation I had with Cousin Bob at the post office yesterday–I am genetically programmed to start at the beginning. I may need to go back three generations before I can get to the core communication.

To properly set the stage, I must introduce Cousin Bob’s parents and grandparents, and possibly his great-grandparents, and maybe his aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. I have to say who married whom and why and how many children they had. I have to mention economic status, level of education, and geographic location. I have to describe outstanding traits and idiosyncrasies as well as interesting interrelationships, such as major quarrels, grudges, and feuds.

When I finally get down to Cousin Bob, I have to flesh him out as well.

Then, once I get the plot moving, I sometimes need to digress and pull in anything else I think might be helpful.

It takes time.

But I’ve  sat on enough front porches listening to old people talk to know the rule: Never start with the headline.

Still, in the interest of continuing romance, I made an effort. And in the interest of same, my pre-husband said no more about my tendency to mosey.

A couple of years later, however, taking a course in legal writing, I heard the lawyer at the front of the room say, “Start with the headline.” In other words, when you’re writing a legal memo or a case brief, state the conclusion; then explain how you got there.

The light dawned. My pre-husband had a law degree. He was trained to start with the headline. He didn’t want me to tell my stories backwards. He just wanted me to talk like a paralegal. Eleven months later, I emerged from the university with an official certificate in paralegal studies and an unofficial certificate in interpersonal communication, probably a first for that program.

Still, starting with the headline seemed a dreary thing for both writer and reader. How can the reader understand the headline before he’s met all the characters, seen where they live and how they’re related? And isn’t starting with the headline like reading the last page first? All the suspense oozes out.

I was so glad fiction doesn’t have to start with the headline.

A few years later, however, I decided to try my hand at writing a mystery. I set it in a small Southern town populated with characters whose family relationships go back several generations. I developed an intriguing plot. I jumped into the action. I wrote several chapters, revised them, and handed them off to a friendly writer.

She handed them back with some positive comments and a great big, “GET THE BACKSTORY OUT OF THE FIRST CHAPTER.”

In other words, start with the headline.