Category : The Writing Craft

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    September 26, 2016

    What makes a great first line?


    brick green no smile b:wIf you’re not familiar with me from my previous blog posts here (I stopped months ago) or my wildly popular Twitter account (where I’ve tweeted exactly six times in the past two years), my name is Erin Buterbaugh and I was an agent at MacGregor Literary working out of beautiful Denver, Colorado. My favorite piece of the agenting process, apart from the vast cash payouts, of course, was the editing/story development aspect of the job—I loved helping my authors make sure their manuscripts were in the best possible shape for showing, so the craft/mechanics side of writing seemed like the perfect area to focus some of my blog efforts on.

    First lesson—never end a sentence with a preposition, the way I just did. (Second lesson—once you know the rules, do whatever the heck you want, the way I just did!) I’ll try to split my time pretty evenly between the mechanics side and the story/writing side of things so this doesn’t become “just” a grammar series, but until people stop sending me submissions in which the commas are outside of the quotation marks, I’m going to carry on reminding people of the rules Miss Stinson tried to teach them in 9th grade.

    Since this is the first post of my new blog presence, I thought it would be fitting to look at what makes a great first line of a book. I’m sure you’ve read the same lists I have on Buzzfeed of the “21 Greatest First Lines in Fiction” or “The 100 Best Opening Lines of All Time,” etc., so rather than re-print all of those tired old “It is a truth universally acknowledged that it was the best of times and the clocks were striking thirteen” lines that everybody picks for their lists, I thought I’d pull some on my favorite first lines from children’s literature and look at some of the lessons they teach about great

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    May 3, 2016

    Ask the Agent: How can I create great memoir?


    For a month now I’ve been doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask anything you want of a literary agent. We had one person write in to say, “A memoir is a deeply personal story covering many avenues of thought. My tell-all of escaping the mental imprisionment of American Fundamental Extremism (having been inadvertently exiled because I admitted to being gay) is hard to pigeonhole. How do I determine how to present it to its broadest advantage, and find an agent who can appreciate the scope of its message?”

    Yeah, that’s too long. (The fact is, the comment was actually much longer, and meandered a bit.) But what you’re basically asking is, “How do I write a great memoir?” And the secret of success with memoir is to write it like a novel. A memoir isn’t an autobiography — who reads autobiography these days? An autobiography is a careful retelling of everything that occurred, so you’ll be spending a lot of time researching sources, and making sure each date is correct. A memoir is a reminiscence — the stories and themes that capture a place, a time, an event, a lesson, a life. So instead of writing it like a history textbook, you write it like a novel.

    That means you’re going to need to create a story arc. Not all the details will fit. You figure out which details we need in order to see your story. And the story will reveal to you where to start, and where to end, what stories will be told, and what will be left out. There will be an inciting incident, and decisions that lead to changes, because that’s what creates a story. It will have characters, whom we care about, and they’ll say and do things that matter in some way. You’ll not just talk about what you did, and what it was like, but what you

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    March 24, 2016

    Thursdays with Amanda: John Steinbeck and the Art of Writing What You Know


    amanda-squareHis grave site wasn’t even under the Steinbeck name—that’s the first thing I noticed.

    The stone obelisk that loomed over John Steinbeck’s final resting place read Hamilton.

    And rightly so. Hamilton was his mother’s name. A name that, I was told, meant many generations of wealth and affluence in the town of Salinas. And yet to me, a fan of Steinbeck, it felt unfair.

    Below the obelisk was a large concrete slab inlaid with small, flat markers. Most of the markers were for various Hamiltons … one passing as recently as ten years go. But the one on the middle right was for John.

    It held his name. His birth year and death. That’s it.

    I’m one of those people who loves to visit old towns and walk in the footsteps of those long gone. I’ve visited James Dean’s gravesite and walked his family’s farm, and I’ve seen where F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, where he lived when he first got word that his book was going to be published, and where his daughter was born.

    And it’s always funny how real it all gets when you see where these famous names came from and how those places and people shaped who they became.

    For Steinbeck, I was blown away by this. In Salinas and in Monterey and in the strawberry farms and cattle ranches in between it was as if I had been transported to a world that I’d always thought of as fake. And yet there it was—real. It had been modernized, no doubt. But the winding coastal streets, the smell of the ocean, the whales in the bay, the ever-pressing presence of the distant ranges surrounding the Salinas Valley were real. And they were just as he had written.

    This is the power of writing what you know. Of taking something that may seem ordinary and plain and boring to you and describing it with such

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    March 23, 2016

    Literary Devices for the Real World: Point of View


    Continuing my series on using literary devices outside of the literature classroom, I’m talking today about point of view– what it is, how it’s classified, and how to use it effectively.

    In what may be one of the least necessary definitions in this series, point of view can be defined as the perspective from which a story is told, or the set of knowledge out of which the narrator is speaking. Point of view is most commonly expressed in first person or third person narration (see below) and an author may choose to use multiple points of view within the same novel (IF he’s careful– more to follow). In case you need a refresher, here’s a quick overview of several different points of view.

    First Person (singular): The story is told by a single person using first-person pronouns (I, Me) to refer to himself. This person serves as the narrator and relates the events of the story as he experienced them firsthand, complete with inner dialogue/personal opinions/thoughts.

    Pros: A story told in the first person can engage the reader deeply due to the personal, intimate connection created when she hears the story firsthand from someone who was there. The personality of the narrator can influence the tone of the story, and author voice is often displayed nicely by a first-person narrator.

    Cons: It can be difficult to avoid combining the first-person narrator with your own all-knowing author persona– if not handled with finesse, a first-person narrator can turn into a two-dimensional puppet for you, the author, moralizing and manipulating the reader’s experience of the story (not to be confused with situations in which your first-person narrator character is a manipulative sociopath and you WANT him to come across as preachy and controlling).


    Third Person Omniscient: The story is told by an all-knowing narrator using third-person pronouns (he, she, him, her, they). The narrator (not usually an actual character involved

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    March 9, 2016

    Literary Devices for the Real World: Deus Ex Machina


    Continuing my series on literary devices, I’m talking less today about how to use a specific literary device and more about how to avoid using one, specifically an often-criticized device known as “deus ex machina.”

    Deus ex machina is probably one of those literary devices that ring a vague bell from your high school literature class. Literally translated as “the god in the machine” (or “the god from the machine”), deus ex machina refers to a plot device or development that serves to almost supernaturally resolve tangled conflict or rescue characters when all hope seems lost and no other solution seems possible. Its name comes from the days of ancient Greek theater when a divine character would be lowered into the middle of the climax by a crane or similar “machine” to right all the wrongs, punish the bad, reward the good, and straighten out what otherwise appeared to be a hopelessly complicated plot. And from its first uses, deus ex machina has been criticized as the crutch used by lazy or unskilled authors who either don’t care enough to figure out a realistic solution to their characters’ problems or who failed to construct a plot that can be resolved believably (in the universe of the story).

    In modern literature, deus ex machina occurs when an author brings in a completely unlooked-for solution to what seems like an otherwise hopeless problem or plot tangle. For example, the main character in a suspense novel is backed into a corner at gunpoint in a concrete bunker 100 feet underground, the police don’t know where he is, the bad guy is about to pull the trigger– and an earthquake occurs, knocking the bad guy to his feet and unconscious, breaking down the concrete door, and making a clear path to the exit. The word “earthquake” has never been used before this point in the novel, no one has mentioned fault lines or cave-ins,

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    March 1, 2016

    Literary Devices for the Real World: Voice


    Welcome back (after a short hiatus) to my series on using literary devices in the real world. After my post on tone, reader Laurie brought up the subject of voice– “Voice is something, like tone, that has always felt a little elusive to me.” Based on the number of questions we at the blog get about voice, Laurie’s not alone!  I understand the frustration some authors have with the mystique that sometimes surrounds the concept of “voice” in writing – I’m as guilty as the next agent or editor who rhapsodizes about a “great writing voice” or fantasizes about finding the next great “voice” without spending a lot of time talking about this seemingly indefinable quality. That’s probably because author voice is a tricky quality to talk about without being too prescriptive. My favorite definition of voice is “the personality of the author as revealed through the writing.” That said, it’s hard for an agent to give specific advice about voice without sounding like we’re suggesting you change your personality/writing style, or without sounding as if we’re dictating what that should be. In reality, all we really want is for your voice to present more clearly and strongly on the page.

    In my last post, I talked about tone, tone being the author’s attitude towards his subject, whether that’s flippant, derisive, sentimental, etc. Because tone is a quality that can be very personal/distinctive, it’s often confused with voice– tone contributes to voice, certainly, but it’s just one of the many ways an author reveals his personality on the page. When it’s done well, voice tells me in the first couple of paragraphs what the author’s style of humor is, how intellectual his writing is, what tone he’s taking, how seriously she takes herself, what she’s “rated–” PG or R?– etc. Regardless of the type of book being written, the answers to these questions about the author’s personality can

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    February 9, 2016

    Literary Devices for the Real World: Tone


    Welcome back to my series on literary devices and how to use them to your best advantage this side of your college lit classroom. This week, we’re talking about tone: what it is, how to identify it in your own writing, and how to harness it to create the atmosphere you want to create in your writing.

    Tone 101

    Let’s start with the technical definition: tone is the attitude adopted by the author toward the events of the story. Tone is revealed through the author’s word choice, commentary, and syntax, and is on display whenever the author uses these elements to reveal his bias toward certain characters, themes, or incidents occurring in the story.

    The (arguably) most effective tool an author has at her disposal when creating tone is her word choice. Just about every word in the English language has a whole set of baggage attached to it based on the books you’ve read, the conversations you’ve had, even the region you grew up in, and while this baggage varies slightly from reader to reader because of the unique background of each one, most English-speaking US readers have approximately the same response to 85% (completely made-up statistic) of the words an author could use to describe a character– tell us a character is “crafty,” or his movements are “shifty,” and we know you’re telling us you don’t believe the character is very trustworthy. Tell us someone “walks with a swagger” and we know you think they’re arrogant.

    This subtle (or sometimes not) indication of his bias on the part of the author can reveal a whole host of inferences– word choice tells the reader whether the author believes a character is to be pitied, admired, patronized, snubbed, whether a setting is pleasant, boring, tasteful, or ugly, whether an incident is tragic, deserved, funny, or insignificant, etc. People generally classify “bias” as a bad thing, accusing news sources of

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    February 3, 2016

    Literary Devices for the Real World: Foreshadowing


    Old open book with a vintage library background

    Welcome to week three of Literary Devices for the Real World! I’m talking today about one of those classic high school literary devices teachers and textbooks loved to point out, foreshadowing.

    You may remember learning about foreshadowing from poems like The Highwayman and short stories such as The Lottery or The Tell-Tale Heart, and if so, it might be that you associate foreshadowing chiefly with melodrama and literary horror. The idea that foreshadowing = foreboding, however, or that foreshadowing is a tool of literary writers only is a far too narrow understanding of foreshadowing and its function in storytelling. The fact is that foreshadowing shows up everywhere, in all types of stories, literary or otherwise, chick lit or mystery. It can show up in any genre, adding dimension, helping to catch and hold the reader’s interest, and helping to establish or reinforce the tone of a story. Foreshadowing is a device storytellers instinctively use to heighten their audience’s emotional response to their story— even if you don’t specifically set out to include it, you most likely will do so without a conscious effort. Recognizing the variety of techniques for accomplishing foreshadowing and knowing the ways it can strengthen or heighten your story can help ensure that you’re maximizing its potential to enhance your reader’s experience of your story.

    Let’s first take a look at some foreshadowing basics. Foreshadowing, by definition, is an allusion to or hint at something yet to happen in a story. It can be subtle, such as a sneeze in chapter 1 from the character who’s going to die of pneumonia in chapter 10, or obvious, such as a direct revelation from the author or narrator (Shakespeare starts Romeo and Juliet by telling the reader/audience that in the story, “a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”). Foreshadowing can occur in dialogue (“I forgot you can’t swim. Don’t you get nervous living so close

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    January 27, 2016

    Literary Devices for the Real World: Flashbacks


    Pile of books on a black background

    Hello, class, and welcome to week 1 of “Literary Devices for the Real World.” Over the next several weeks, I’ll be talking about how to best use literary devices in your writing to better serve your story and improve your craft. This week: flashbacks.

    Flashbacks are one of the most commonly used literary devices, and one that can take many forms. Put simply, a flashback is a reference to or depiction of events having occurred before the “present day” of the story. Flashbacks can be external– referencing events from a character’s life before the point at which the current narrative began– or internal– referencing events that happened within the current narrative– and can occur in dreams, recall (“my father used to smoke a pack a day”), or full, immersive scenes from the past incorporated into the present-day narrative.

    Flashbacks serve to provide the reader with background information on a setting or conflict and to increase the reader’s sympathy for and understanding of a character. They can also increase the tension or suspense surrounding the current events of the story by creating curiosity about what happened between the past and the present to change things– if the main character flashes back to standing in her wedding dress at the back of a church yet in present-day the character is unmarried, the reader will know something has happened between the two realities and will want to find out what it was– divorce? Death? Left at the altar? Prologues often take the form of a flashback, starting off the book with an important scene from the past that sets up a conflict or introduces a concept or an object that will be important in the present-day story.

    Most authors use flashbacks extensively in their storytelling. Even if you don’t feel like you’re spending huge amounts of time in the past, you’re most likely constantly making reference to formative events and experiences when writing

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    January 20, 2016

    Literary devices for the real world


    Pile of books on a black background

    Welcome back to my Tuesday blog on craft! Thanks to Aubrey for giving me the idea for my new series by suggesting I post on foreshadowing and flashbacks– when to use them, when to avoid them, etc. I thought I’d use that as a jumping off point for a longer series on recognizing literary devices in your writing and using them effectively, and if that sounds like a nightmare flashback to high school English, that was intentional– hear me out before you click back over to Facebook.

    We all took the same high school and college English classes in which we pointed out allegory and symbolism and foreshadowing in the same twelve pieces of literature, hand-picked because they provided the most blatantly recognizable examples of those symbols. Out in the real world, however, in the absence of the flashing neon lights of the textbook’s prompts and the teacher’s hints, we don’t always recognize those literary devices when they show up in our writing, and so we miss the opportunity to really develop them/use them most effectively. As an agent, I see writing all the time that is “almost there–” if the author just dug a little deeper in the characterizations, if he just developed the point of view a little more clearly, if she just found a little more consistency in tone, this manuscript would be great! But when I give that feedback to these same authors, too often their response is the email equivalent of a blank look– “How would I describe my tone? Um… sad, I guess? Or maybe dark. But it’s funny in places– can a tone be funny and sad? Do you mean tone as in, ‘leave a message after the?'” And so on. Without a clear understanding of tone and what determines it, an author is pretty powerless to evaluate it in his work and to strengthen/improve it if needed, and the same goes for

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