Category Archives: Just the way I see it

It’s all about TONE!

IT all started a year ago.

As you can read in other posts, the idea to create this blog originated while I interned at Tin House Books in Portland. It was terrifically rewarding to assist at the afternoon lectures of the TIN HOUSE SUMMER WRITER’S WORKSHOP and  listen to some especially delicious commentary from the visiting faculty.

Yesterday, “Beginnings, a panel with Ann Hood, Joy Williams, and J.C. Hallman, moderated by Michelle Wildgen” didn’t focus on anything I’ve previously commented on – not directly, anyway.

TONE.  Yesterday, it was all about tone!

The prevailing comment put forward by all three authors as the most important element to establish at the opening of a story, is tone. A story must create a uniform tone that in the microcosmic first sentences (or paragraphs or pages) represents the story as a whole. Ann Hood suggested that the very opening (but not necessarily the first sentence)should represent the entire story. I believe, in previous blogs, I’ve used the analogy of the acorn’s DNA holding the same DNA as the oak. Ms. Hood also used the seed into fully grown plant analogy.

It was interesting to hear J.C. Hallman and Joy Williams quote first sentences as ambassador to the story. Joy Williams quoted, Pat Conroy’s THE PRINCE OF TIDES: “My wound is geography,” while J.C. Hallman commented on the “modest” tone of HOWARD’S END: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letter to her sister.” Both openings employ different strategies to alert the reader to the upcoming prospect. Each member of the panel agreed that at the beginning, the author has limitless possibility, however, very quickly, and once the story’s tone is established, the reader expects that story to stay within boundaries established by the author.

I wonder, and I wish I’d asked this during the panel Q&A, how does one write “tone” or even put one’s finger on it? It seems much easier for a student writer to indicate setting, character, choice – all of which contribute to create plot, but how does an emerging (or emerged) writer dissect tone from these other technical elements?

Your turn! Comments please….

But first, I must give a shout out to Karen Russell’s lecture presentation of Monday afternoon where she referred to story writing as a TECHNOLOGY. As what?? Not in the sense of nuts, bolts, gears or www, but each element of a story’s reality having technical energies of say, fantasy, familiarity, structure and desire (like in outcome or intention). You must track her down and find out more! Start with her story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.


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When I started this project last October I thought that I’d wrap it up as soon as my thesis was written. It’s written. In fact I finished it in March and got thumbs up from my committee. In June I make a thirty-minute oral defense of my work. My discoveries from writing this blog will be a huge part of my commentary.

I’m so glad I did this! It has made a huge difference in my understanding of what goes on in the opening of a novel and it focused my attention on what I was reading and how it motivated me forward.

So what has changed?

The format, mostly. I must recognize Susan Bell and her wonderful book THE ARTFUL EDIT. From her insightful work I have added several categories to my postings, including language, structure and foreshadowing. Ms. Bell offers excellent advise to writers on how to view their work for the purpose of editing – not over editing, but self editing. I recommend it highly.

Another format addition. I’ve added a category called THEMATIC PREAMBLE. Most significant works offer a three or four page cycle at the very beginning of the story that parallels the main story. An excellent example of this is John Irving’s CIDER HOUSE RULES where the book opens with a generic tale that segues into the story of Homer Wells and the orphanage. Often times a prologue will serve as a thematic preamble.

The thing that hasn’t changed is that I love writing these reviews. Even though I’ve finished my thesis assignment and am scheduled for September graduation I enjoy these close readings and commenting on what will happen after the first ten pages are over.

So for now, I’ll continue to write reviews every now and then, in between the collection of short stories that are due in August for me to graduate.

Thanks for reading.

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Introduce Location Early, pt.1

People often ask me why I have a blog. If they’ve read some of my posts then they ask me why I’m doing it. My blog is a reflection of the research I am doing for my thesis on the consistent consequential elements that authors include in the first ten pages of fictional novels. Why ten pages? Why not? It’s a nice number. And it’s totally random.

What I’ve noticed in my ten page readings – which, by the way, I’m calling “discovery” instead of “research” – is that the majority of the books I start introduce a location within the first few paragraphs, and usually within the first three sentences. It is my opinion that by doing so the author gives the reader a tangible way to relate to the narrative voice and main character, which are often one and the same. For example, in my most recent posting of THE GOOD EARTH, the reader learns in the second sentence that the main character is “opening his eyes in the blackness of the curtains about his bed. It doesn’t tell the reader EVERYTHING about where the story is located, and yet it gives the reader a starting point. It places the character in a particular location and in turn allows the reader to create an opinion about that character. Even if that location is an unfamiliar or fantastical place, the reader establishes their relationship to the character by the world in which the character exists.

Readers of fictional literature are all (predominantly) human beings with strong ties to particular places and locations. As humans we view the world and our place in it, not the other way around. Even the most self-centered or megalomaniacal personalities who view themselves as the center of the universe have to have a universe in which to be the center of.  The author first introduces location (I’ll say 85% of the time) within the first three paragraphs. It is the main character’s relationship to the place he inhabits, even if that place is completely foreign to the character, that tells the reader how to relate to the character’s story.

People relate to each other differently depending on where they encounter each other. In the case of THE GOOD EARTH, the reader slowly awakens to the new day along with Wang Lung. Throughout the following few paragraphs the narrator describes the mud & straw hut, the cow and chickens sharing the kitchen and the vast sky dawning over their precious wheat fields. Our relationship to Wang Lung is enhanced by Wang Lung’s relationship to his bed, his home, and his fields.


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