REVIEW: “Beginnings, Middles, & Ends” By: Nancy Kress

As many of you know (because I won’t shut up about it) I’ve been writing a novel about my experience in SE Asia in 2017. As part of this process, I decided to take a novel writing class through the UCLA Extension. The class I got into is great but there was another class I couldn’t get into that recommended a book entitled, “Beginnings, Middles, & Ends” By Nancy Kress. Not only did I read that book, I really enjoyed it. If you are writing a novel/short story and want a great place to start, read this book. Or don’t, save yourself some time and just read this blog. Below is what I learned and would like to retain.

– English poet Robert Southey said, “Be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams, the more they are condensed the deeper they will burn.”

– “…the credible writer doesn’t allow the writing to become self-indulgent. The focus should be on the story, not the writer.”

– “Many writers don’t think about aspects of credible prose at all in the first draft. They concentrate on the story the first time through, revisions to the story second time through, and prose quality in the third draft.”

– When having trouble deciding what a scene should be about. Always go back to: “What do your characters want?”

– Once you find out what they want, make a list. All of those wants can become scenes.

– “The story takes shape in your mind through the act of writing itself. Additional possibilities occur to you. Other slants present themselves at the edges of your consciousness. If you are rigidly committed to a point of view, you may not be open to the surges of imagination.”

– To make character changes convincing four things must happen:
1) The reader must understand your character’s initial personality, and especially her motivation.
2) The reader must see evidence that your character is capable of change.
3) The reader must see dramatized a pattern of experience that might reasonably be expected to affect someone.
4) The reader must see a plausible new motivation replace the character’s old motivation.

– “This is because stories grow out of what characters do, and, in turn, what characters do grows out of what they want.”

– “The problem of the human heart in conflict with itself-that alone can make good writing.” William Faulkner

– “It can be helpful to stop somewhere in the middle of your novel to list these motivation switches on a piece of paper. What did each character want at the beginning of the book? What does he want now? Is it still the same desire? Do you know? If you don’t, give it some serious thought.”

– “Do you understand what your characters want? Could they maybe want something else you’ve overlooked? What’s at stake in their story? Can you raise the stakes?”

– LOVE THIS: “If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be NO. If it’s YES- if the events of your book would be unaltered no matter whom they happened to- your ending will not feel convincing.”

– “Your ending grows naturally out of who your characters are.”

– “Mark Twain referred to the denouement at the “marryin’ and buryin’.”

– (when looking for feedback on a draft) “For this resonance to work you need a sensitive reader: one capable of making subtle connections between the world of the story and the world he lives in. Not all readers can–or want–to do that.”

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