One Writer’s Journey

August 11, 2017

Set Your Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:33 am
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Parade. Alpine, Texas. 1924

Recently, Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency posted a summary of her ongoing series “9 Story Openings to Avoid.”  I started to skim the list but was stopped on item #2.  “White Room Syndrome.”  What is that?

White Room Syndrome is what Nelson calls it when a writer forgets to set the story.  They have a character or two. They have action?  But what they don’t have is any kind of setting.

It really isn’t a secret that opening scenes are tough.  Too much dialogue?  Boring.  Heart thumping action?  Who cares! We don’t know the character yet.  From the opening page, you need to strike a balance between starting the story and getting it up.  It’s no surprise that this balance includes that all important part of “setting it up,” the setting.

You have to let the reader know where and when the story takes place.  This doesn’t mean that you have to start with a header – Alpine, Texas. 1924.  Instead, as your character goes about buying supplies and hurrying to school, you give a few setting details.

These need to include the geography.  For this particular setting, you might mention the mountains.  And the desert.  The town name?  That’s a little more difficult but maybe you could work it into the name of a business or school – the Alpine Feed Store or Alpine Elementary.

Don’t forget the time period – that means time of the year as well as the year itself.  Winter?  Sunny but cold.  Maybe a dusting of snow.  Summer?  Heat, but it’s a dry heat.  A mid-summer night might include glow behind the mountains from a grass fire.  For the year itself, you probably aren’t going to get the exact year unless you have your character peruse a newspaper (please, don’t). But you can use details to give a feel for the time period.  A horse tied to a hitching post reacts to a passing car.

Essential though these details may be, you have to work them into the story.  Start with page after page of detailed narrative and you are going to bog things down and lose readers before anything happens.  As with all things in writing, your opening scene must be well-balanced.  Just be sure that balance includes your setting.

For more posts on setting, see “Researching Setting: Walk It When You Can” or “World Building: Setting and Culture.”




March 2, 2017

The Beginning: Set Your Story Up for Maximum Impact

freedomovermeYesterday, I read Freedom Over Me, Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan.  This was one of the books most recently read by the American Library Association.  Honestly, I need to send them a thank you note because until I saw this book on the award list, it had escaped my notice.

As the title makes clear, this is the story of 11 slaves.  What the title doesn’t tell you is that these are 11 people who have molded themselves into something of a family.  They have the work that they do for the master — carpentry, sewing, cooking, farming — and many are so talented that they are “hired out” and bring even more benefit to the estate.  But they also have their lives out of the master’s eye.  They have means of using their gifts to benefit their fellow slaves and dreams of how they might use these gifts in the future.

Doesn’t feel especially fresh when I tell it like that, does it?  But it starts with a poem from the POV of the master’s wife.  He has just died.  His widow is afraid to manage their estate alone because she has heard about slave revolts.  Instead, she will sell them and move home to England were she will feel safe among her own people.

Read that part again.  Safe among her own people.

Do you see how powerful this set up is?  From the widow’s worries and words, we move on to the lives of the slave people who are once again being offered for sale which will surely mean that they will lose the families they have built.  And all of this will happen after losing their African families.

The impact is profound largely because of how Bryan set up the story.  The poor grieving widow is afraid.  She has lost her husband and although he built this estate, she feels she must sell it and move home.  Where she will be safe.

Turn the page and you are looking at 11 people who are being auctioned off.  Eleven people who will very soon not be safe.  They will, once again, not be among their own people

Now think about your own work-in-progress.  Do you have a set up this powerful?  If not, what might you do to rock your reader back on their heals?  To make them see things in a new light?

Think about it.


February 18, 2016

Opening Scenes: How to Start Your Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:52 am
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stairs, people, sittingHow you choose to open your book sets up an expectation in your reader.  Open with a chase scene and the reader expects high adventure, speed and excitement.  Open with something that goes bump in the night and your reader expects tension and continued spooks and scares. That’s well and good for fiction but how do you open your nonfiction?

As with fiction, the answer depends on the book.

Duchess Harris and I are working on another project together.  This one is about a group of black women who worked for NASA.  These women were mathematicians who performed the calculations that helped engineers analyze the data from wind tunnel tests.  They wrote the book on how to calculate reentry, orbit and more. In short, they scienced the hell out of it. (Yes, I altered the quote.)

We could open with a scene of these women hard at work, spying through magnifying glasses to read blurry photos, punching numbers into calculating machines.  They also pulled levers and filled out spread sheets by hand. This scene would certainly set up what these women do.

But we are also telling about how they were made invisible.  The black women worked in their own pool.  Although they were assigned to work on projects with white engineers, many members of the white pool were unaware that the black pool existed.

Yeah, I don’t get it.  How can you be more observant than a grape and not notice they are working right over there?  Until recently no one had even researched the black women, focusing on the white.  Because of that, I am opening with a scene in which one of these women was, in her own time, made invisible by quite literally removing her from the picture.  We want readers to understand how intentionally this was accomplished so that they can fully grasp the story told in the larger book.

But, don’t worry.  Unlike a lot written on the topic, Duchess and I still plan to science the hell out of it.


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