Pinned this week for your storytelling pleasure: Three great reads and some tips. And hey, don’t forget to follow us on Pinterest.
Jay Caspian Kang’s New York Times magazine piece — about Reddit, Twitter and the frenzied misidentification of a missing Brown student named Sunil Tripathi as a Boston Marathon bombing suspect — is an important one, well told. Here’s Kang, behind the scenes on Reddit:
Despite its size and influence, Reddit employs only 28 people. The company’s offices are two glass-walled boxes found at the back of a large, long-tabled, dog-friendly communal work space in Lower Manhattan. Depending on the day, somewhere between four and six Reddit employees are at work there. Large, conceptual problems do exist at Reddit — for example, many new users find the site impossible to navigate, creating a bottleneck through which only dedicated, Web-savvy users can pass — but the day-to-day tasks at Reddit are mostly mundane. Erik Martin, who last year made Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people, is Reddit’s general manager, spokesman and all-purpose problem solver. On the morning of my visit, he seemed mostly occupied with writing a blog post promoting Reddit’s worldwide meet-up day, when thousands of Redditors (as the site’s users are called) would converge in public spaces around the globe. The day before, after noting that Asa Butterfield, the star of the coming film “Ender’s Game,” contributed to a hot comment thread about a recently released trailer, Martin persuaded Butterfield to conduct one of Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” sessions, an interview series that has featured Snoop Lion, Psy, Bill Gates and Barack Obama.
Emily Le Coz of the Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss., wrote a stirring story about how the iPad unlocked an autistic young man’s 20 years of silence. Her opening:
The last word Watson Dollar spoke before autism erased his ability to do so was “lights.”
The chubby cheeked toddler lay in his father’s arms as anesthesia, administered for an ear-tube surgery, dimmed his consciousness. Head lolling back, body going limp, Watson gazed at the fluorescent lamps above him, uttering the one-syllable noun.
Then he closed his eyes and never spoke again. That was 20 years ago.
In the two months between Halloween and Christmas of 1992, Watson had lost almost of all of his 150-word vocabulary along with an interest in the world. It leaked out of him slowly like air from a balloon.
His parents initially failed to notice the change, chalking up the subtle signs to stubbornness or fatigue or the ever-changing nature of a developing child.
By New Year’s, though, the difference was both inescapable and worrisome.
Lane DeGregory, writing about a 99-year-old Florida man who still goes to work every day as a janitor — and loves it? You bet we’re reading that one. An excerpt, from her piece in the Tampa Bay Times:
The Bama seafood people were moving in when an old man showed up. He had a dark, wrinkled face, milky eyes, spindly arms.
“I am here for work,” he told general manager John Jackson.
“They sold the building,” Jackson remembers telling him. “This is no longer Harry Bell’s.”
“No matter, Cap’n,” Jackson remembers him saying. “I come with the property.”
Jackson let him stay. “What was I going to do?” The next day, the old man brought his own broom.
Mr. Newton, then 86, had been working as a janitor at the complex for more than 20 years, ever since he moved here from Trinidad. His salary then and now: minimum wage.
“Bama became my new family,” he says. “I am blessed.”
Interviewland: Stephen King’s got a new interview out, in The Atlantic, in which he says he spends “months and even years” writing his opening sentences. Wishful thinking for daily deadline beaters, but what’s valuable here is that King spends a lot of time thinking about writing and about the integrity of sentences. (Haven’t read his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft? Yes, go, run, do it.) He also makes some keen points about authorial voice:
But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
How can a writer extend an appealing invitation — one that’s difficult, even, to refuse?
We’ve all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader’s interest. This is what we call a “hook,” and it’s true, to a point. This sentence from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly plunges you into a specific time and place, just as something is happening:
They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.
This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do. In “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” we can see right away that we’re not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw.
(Bonus points for “foofaraw.”)
Tips: Who doesn’t want pointers from Henry Miller and Annie Proulx? Guess which writer said which:
Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter.
Inspired: The Wall Street Journal is experimenting with first-person video storytelling; emotional excess may be a key to writing and creativity; and children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom once wrote, to Maurice Sendak, that emotion “combined with an artist’s discipline is the rarest thing in the world.”