Archive for June, 2016

Tuesday night is our last meeting

June 30, 2016

On Tuesday we’ll have our last meeting. Please attend and fill in the student evaluations. We will wrap it up as best we can. The ultimate goal is that after you hand in your paper, you will meet with me to discuss it. (Did I mention that I am giving a talk at the AEJMC meeting in Minneapolis on August 7 about teaching this class.)

Please review the entry about how to prepare a manuscript.

You need to spend time on your stories. Get them to me by next Thursday. Let me know by email how you are doing. Talk to me.

Your final obligation is to meet with me after I get your paper. I will be out of the office for a couple of weeks in mid July, maybe three. But we must go over your drafts. They won’t be perfect. But you need to see how to improve them.



June 29, 2016

Send me your draft by the last class Thursday, July 7.

Sooner would be better. I will read and give comments. You can re-write to improve your grade. In a regular 15-week semester you would hand in the draft in time for a re-write. We don’t have the time to do this, obviously.

How to prepare a manuscript

June 29, 2016

First, write a title and a subtitle.

Under that, put your byline. As in By Shannon Henderson.

Indent the paragraphs. Do you know how to do that with Word? The little triangle in toolbar will automatically indent five spaces at the beginning of each paragraph.

Use space-and-a-half line spacing.

Use some extra spaces to indicate section breaks.

Or indicate section breaks by writing subheads as in the Titanic story. Writing section subheads before you write  will help you finish the draft. Think of writing the piece in chapters with titles. The hardest part of writing is knowing what to write next. That’s why I emphasize planning the story and rehearsing it in your mind.

Reread the draft and polish.

LAST BUT MOST IMPORTANT: Use spelling and grammar check. It won’t catch every error but it will catch a lot of them. Not using grammar and spellcheck tells me you’re not taking yourself seriously.




Death of Poet Manuscript

June 27, 2016

Under the pages column, check out Death of Poet Ms. Ms. is an abbreviation for manuscript.  You will see how the I went from past to present tense. A curiosity from the days of typewriters.

On reading memoirs

June 27, 2016

Many of you are writing pieces that fall in the realm of memoir. Memoirs are well worth reading. Some of the obvious ones are Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (another as-told-to story.) James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, opened the eyes of white readers. Baldwin wrote it  as a letter to his nephew, which seems to be a tactic that helps the writer find his voice. Write it to someone you know, and  then share it with the world. Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed his recent memoir, Between the World and Me, to his son. There’s something about this tactic that helps the writer focus.

Some other books well worth reading. First of all, James McBride’s The Color of Water, a Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother. It sold more than a million copies in the mid-’90s. (Where were you in 1994?) McBride came to campus a couple of years ago and gave a wonderful reading and talk. He tells the story in alternating chapters. He alternates  as-told-to chapters in his mother’s voice with first-person chapters about his boyhood and young manhood. McBride recently published a comic novel, The Good Lord Bird, about a young black slave boy who gets caught up with John Brown and the raid on Harper’s Ferry.  McBride  is also a professional jazz musician.

Two more memoirs. Poet Tracy K. Smith wrote a memoir called Ordinary Light. She read in Houston this past spring as part of the Inprint reading series. An Jesmyn Ward wrote a memoir called The Men We Reaped about the deaths of three young men in the small Mississippi town where she grew up. She came to TSU about two or three years ago as part of the Inprint reading series.

Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes, is about growing up poor in Ireland. The book made McCourt, a high school English teacher, famous. I strongly recommend this book, and another called Stop-Time by Frank Conroy from 1967.

Here’s a last bit of advice. Subscribe to Writer’s Almanac and get a daily email about poetry and books. Well worth reading every day.

Here’s an excerpt from a short biography of a writer in today’s newsletter:

McDermott was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Elmont, Long Island. Her father was a Con Edison man and her mother was a big reader, reading aloud to her children from Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post. McDermott convinced her parents to let her major in English at college, but they made sure she kept her typing and shorthand skills up, just in case. It was while she was in college that she first felt she might really be a writer. One of her professors read her work and said, “I have bad news for you. You’re a writer and you’ll never shake it.”

I love the last line.



For Tuesday: Read “Death of a Poet”

June 23, 2016

This is the best story I have ever written. It won awards. It made my reputation in Texas. It’s one of those stories that happens rarely to a writer. It took a lot of reporting. It follows Poe’s dictum that the best subject for a poem is the death of a beautiful woman. But the story would have failed if I got sentimental. It helped that I found the story within the story: the effect Judith had on those around her.

It might be a good idea to print the story out. (It’s in the Pages column to the right of the blog.) It’s about 7000 words long. It was my first major magazine piece and I was incredibly lucky. I worked hard on it. I did a lot of reporting. The first section was based on Judith’s journals. Partway through the editing and condensing of Judith’s journals, I changed from past to present tense. It’s a poetic tactic, appropriate for a story about a poet. In 1986 Ben Yagoda wrote a piece about the use of present tense in poetry and fiction. I used it in a nonfiction piece for the same reasons. If life is like a dream if it isn’t written down, I wrote Judith’s life as if it were a dream, in the dreamlike quality of the present tense.

I never got that lucky again.

Some common problems with language

June 23, 2016

Art of Narrative JOUR 505, Texas Southern University

Lazy words:

typical, standard, usual, quality, of choice, eventually, multiple, a number of, premier (adj),

Writers should be precise, and write with details. These words appear when the writer isn’t sure of the numbers or the dates or the merits or the qualities of the thing or person they are describing.


Some adverbs amount to an editorial intrusion, telling the reader what to think or feel about a situation. They can almost always be cut. Examples:  unfortunately, happily, hopefully, understandably, adequately, heartbreakingly.

Misused words

Over, more than. Use over for physical position: He placed the blanket over the corpse. Use more than and less than for number: More than 300,000 Laotians fled the country.

Crutch expressions

In fact, due to the fact that, however, nevertheless, therefore, the reason was, which meant that, it is, there is, there are,

“She could not ignore the stench, however.” See why you don’t…

View original post 284 more words

Story structure

June 23, 2016

The title of the course is the Art of Narrative, but really we’re practicing the art of telling stories.

Tonight we must look at what R.V. Cassill calls the mechanics of story telling. (See the handout in your packet. It’s also in the pages of this blog)  It helps to be aware of what you are doing in any particular section of writing.

Cassill identifies four elements: description, narrative, scenes and dialogue. Narrative, as I’ve said, is writing in which time moves rapidly. In his novel All that Is, James Salter brilliantly compresses the first three and a half years of the Pacific campaign in World War II in a two-page narrative passage. The narrative establishes the background in which the opening scene will take place. The central character will be tested in combat.

Typically, the story teller  speeds up with narrative and then slows down in scenes. The narrative passage is used to prepare the reader for the scene. Narrative passages are often used for background.

For example, Vonn is going to need a description of his background to explain who he is as a character in his story. We will expect something about his parents, his neighborhood, his school, his experience with women, his values,  in short, his background. All this leads to a motivation: why he wants to come to TSU.  The reader needs this information. So go ahead and write it.

We need an description of TSU what was happening at the school, what it was like. How alive the place was, how all sorts of people would turn up there.

And one of the people who turned up was Carol. A description of her might then lead to a scene. An encounter. Some dialogue. Time will slow down during the scene. And then transition back to narrative, using a time element: “For the next few weeks I made it a point to sit next to her in class whenever she showed up, which wasn’t often.”

So that’s the general structure of stories: narrative and scene, narrative and scene. Unless you’re writing like Laura Secor, telling a breathless narrative almost without scenes.

In that case, all the transitions are basically time elements: “three years later,”  and “in the spring of 1994.” Transitions are essential. Cassill gives a great example of how to transition into a scene. Describe a place and then have the character walk into the place and do something. Instantly you’re into a scene.

By going back and forth from  narrative to  scene and back again, the writer creates a rhythm. Most beginning writers mistakenly believe that writing is all about scene, creating the illusion of real time.  But I think when you’re learning to tell stories, the ability to summarize and explain is more important. When Bianca just blurted out what her story is about, it all became clear. That ability to explain, to summarize, to narrate, is the key, and the key to narration is to speak in a natural voice. Trust that voice. Find that voice.

James Salter’s preface to his last novel

June 23, 2016

There comes a time when you

realize that everything is a dream,

and only those things preserved in writing

have any possibility of being real. 


Tonight: Schedule an editorial conference

June 21, 2016

We’ll talk about the as-told-to stories and see how much progress you have made on story concepts. We will schedule an editorial conference with each writer. You must have a story conference in which we map out the story.

I don’t want you to write a story without consulting with me in an editorial conference. Then you’ll be in the ball park with your first draft. And from there we can talk about a revision.