A note from Marie-Helene Bertino on her upcoming spring workshop at One Story

BertinoPhoto1I’ve wanted to be a fiction writer since I was four years old and wrote my first earnest, terrible poem. When on late nights I ruminate on how that desire has influenced the shape of my life (the smallness of my apartment), I think mostly of the kind, brilliant people who paused their journeys to offer me advice or, at times, a strongly-worded pep talk. Anything I’ve been able to achieve has been because of these helpful souls.

Several years ago I decided to begin teaching because I finally felt I had something to bestow. I wanted to help newer writers by passing along the advice I’d received, and the advice I wish I’d received

One of the most important tools to cultivate is the ability to allow the constructive criticism of others make your work stronger. To that end, we will workshop stories with this question in mind: where do I think this writer/story is trying to go? We will tailor our critiques toward the idea of helping the writer get there. We will eschew the idea that there is one way to write fiction. We will seek out the joy in our work and the work of others and will cultivate our personal, idiosyncratic voices. 

If this sounds good to you, please join us for One Story’s Spring workshop. The workshop will meet weekly on Tuesdays evenings from February 23rd to March 22nd at the One Story Inc. office in Brooklyn. For more information and to apply, please visit the website

One Story Workshop Day 3: From 1st Draft to the Editor’s Inbox

One Story's Adina Talve-Goodman introduces One Story author Seth Fried

Adina introduces One Story author Seth Fried

The third day of One Story’s summer workshop for writers began with morning sessions of Will Allison’s and Patrick Ryan’s workshops. Halfway through the week, everyone seems to be benefiting from the intensive edits. “People want you to improve,” said one of Will’s students after her story was critiqued. “Nothing was missed. Everyone was super helpful!” Will gave credit to his dutiful students. “Everyone is reading very deeply,” he said.

In Patrick’s room, the two students being workshopped were talking animatedly after everyone else had gone to lunch. “I rewrote the first half of my story in my brain in the time between my workshop and yours,” one of the students said to the other, laughing. “It was like Tetris pieces coming together.” The other student agreed. “I want to go home right now and start redrafting,” she said.

After the writers ate lunch, they sat down for One Story author Seth Fried’s craft lecture, “Getting through the First Draft.” Seth is the author of One Story’s 124th issue, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” and his speech focused on generating new writing material. He stressed the importance of writing even if you think that what you’re writing isn’t good. “The first draft is always shit,” Seth said, quoting Hemingway. He added that your “inner critic” is bad for generating work, and if you focus too much on what you’re writing, the content will end up being forced instead of fluid.

To get us all started, Seth assigned a writing exercise: write 200 words, right then, without thinking. The workshop participants said that the exercise was freeing, and that it was nice to write in longhand instead of typing. Seth also mentioned three great resources for generating fiction: John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.

Once the writers had their afternoon break, One Story’s Managing Editor, Adina Talve-Goodman, spoke with three other editors in our nightly panel. The editors were Julie Buntin, author of One Teen Story’s “Phenomenon” and Associate Editor of Catapult; Jonathan Lee, editor of A Public Space; and Lincoln Michel, Online Editor of Electric Literature and coeditor of Gigantic.

All four editors agreed that there was a certain thrill in publishing debut authors, and that mentioning that you’ve never been published doesn’t hurt your cover letter! They also stressed the importance of submitting your work to a magazine that fits. Don’t just send your story to whoever will take it—do some research and send your story to the magazines that will appreciate it the most. Lincoln said that the story was more meaningful if the author was attached to the magazine somehow, and Adina stressed the importance of not giving up. It’s all about getting the right story into the right hands.

We only have one more day of workshop before the final reading on Friday. Stay tuned for an event at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore with another One Story author, Calvin Baker, and Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti!

How to Write Beginnings & Endings

Mirror.ReflectTomorrow is the final day to apply for the One Story Summer Workshop for Writers (July 14-19th, 2013 at the Center for Fiction in NYC)!!

Last week, One Story gave a “taste-test” of our workshop by hosting a free craft lecture, given by One Story Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti. Over fifty eager writers joined One Story in Brooklyn at our  home, the Old American Can Factory, for wine,  beer, snacks, and an engaging talk on how to write beginnings and endings.

In her lecture, Hannah started by comparing the first page of a short story to a first date. Imagine you’ve just asked out your reader. You’ll want to shower, dress up and look your best (fix that grammar & improper semi-colon). You don’t want to be boring (make something interesting happen on the first page). You don’t want to over-share (don’t over-burden the reader with too much back-story–save that for pages 2-3). You want there to be a second date (i.e.–for the reader to keep reading), so be sexy, mysterious, fun and most important: yourself. But: how can a writer make that happen on the page?

  • Write with authority–clear, confident sentences.
  • Set the stage–make the setting/place vibrant right away so the reader gets oriented.
  • Introduce the major characters–so the reader knows who the players are.
  • Start with action–early active scenes will capture the reader’s interest.
  • Establish the characters’ emotional situation–all stories are about something changing–show the reader how things look “before” this change.
  • Hint at the overall intention of the piece–what is this story going to be about?

For examples, Hannah pointed to a few opening lines from the masters:

The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station.–“Reunion” by John Cheever

In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I’m in the third checkout slot, with my back to the door, so I don’t see them until they’re over by the bread.–“A&P” by John Updike

She flicked her wrist neatly out of Doctor Harry’s pudgy careful fingers and pulled the sheet up to her chin. –“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter

A look at these first lines shows how quickly the necessary orientation can take place. The shortest is perhaps the most powerful. With just twelve words, Cheever introduces the main characters–a father and son, their relationship–tenuous at best, and setting–Midtown Manhattan. Instantly, intriguing questions pop into the reader’s mind.

Although first dates are often full of hope and excitement, nearly all break-ups are horrible. There is a big dramatic fight, or a mean text-message, or worst of all: radio silence. In this same way, Hannah explained, many short stories end badly, without the proper resolution, leaving readers unsatisfied or confused. The best endings are thoughtful and meaningful, respectful of readers and emotionally moving, right up to and even past the final page. Here’s a few tricks Hannah shared to help make this happen:

  • Slow down time on the page, by lengthening descriptions and paragraph length, as well as cutting down on dialogue.
  • Focus on the main theme of the story without being too obvious.
  • Use the five senses in the last two paragraphs to bring emotional clarity without being overly-explicit. It allows the reader to experience a situation alongside the character. To feel what they feel.
  • Like a well-written obituary, or a moving memorial service, the ending of your story should leave a resonance, an echo that continues and stays with the the reader even after they’ve put down your book.

Now let’s take a look at the last lines of our master stories:

Goodbye, Daddy,’ I said, and I went down the stairs and got my train, and that was the last time I saw my father.–“Reunion” by John Cheever

I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.– “A & P” by John Updike

Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this—I’ll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.– “The Jilting of Grannie Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter

Hannah went through all of these endings, but for time I’ll just repeat her close read of “Reunion.” Rather than finish with the father’s drunken antics, Cheever adroitly takes the first words of the story, and reuses them as the last words, creating a circular structure. This implicitly brings the reader back to the beginning of the story, reminding him of the journey taken, and underlining the words–“the last time”–which now hold greater meaning.

Like mirrors, Hannah later explained, the beginning and ending of a story should reflect everything that has happened in the story. The best writers re-write their first and last paragraphs over and over, until they gently echo each other, creating the sense of “infinity” of two mirrors, facing one-another on opposite walls (see pic above).

Wish you were there that night? Ready for more talks like this one? Then it’s time to submit to the One Story Workshop for Writers, an intensive learning experience from July 14th to 19th, where you’ll get a great lecture like this everyday, along with an intense morning workshop and evening panels with editors, agents, and MFA directors. We hope you take advantage of this opportunity and join us this summer. The deadline to apply is April 30th–tomorrow at midnight! Visit our website for more information. And many thanks to our Chief Hannah Tinti, for providing us all with this fun and informative night of starts and finishes.