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First Chapters

Ask me what I’m reading these days and I’ll tell you, “First chapters.” That’s not the title of a book—I’m reading the first chapters of some of the books on my favorites shelf. Often, not even the entire first chapter, but the first few pages.

Since the move from Michigan to Washington took over a month (and maybe I should write a book about incompetent movers and Draconian mortgage lenders), I wasn’t able to work on my latest novel attempt. After all that time away from the ms I figured I’d better go back to the beginning, and reorient myself into the story.

It wasn’t quite what I remembered.

The first chapter was beautifully written; it was profound in places… and it was kind of boring.

This is what the people in my former critique group told me, but of course I wouldn’t listen. It’s also what an agent who judged a contest I recently entered wrote about it.

So I’m reading first chapters of successful books, trying to absorb how the writers established their stories and characters, while creating desire in the reader to know more about them. As I’ve read so many times before, a writer has only a few pages to entice a reader, or an agent, never mind how good the story turns out to be later. It’s a product of our instant gratification culture, but it’s what we’ve got, so I’ll have to adjust.

I’m seeing aspects that never registered before. I just reread chapter one of Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker. I remember that novel as a fascinating exploration into the workings of the brain. But the first chapter started with a flock of cranes, an auto accident, and a sister desperately trying to reach her injured brother.

Even that intellectual giant, Umberto Eco, found a way to pull his reader into an extremely complex story, by having two children explain the science in chapter one of Focault’s Pendulum, so that even the most naïve reader could understand it.

I’ve always shied away from what I see as overused tropes to begin a story, the ones that, to me, border on the sentimental or gimmicky. When I start a story in medias res, I go all the way—I don’t fool around with backstory and explanations. But that can leave readers ungrounded. Maybe I could find a compromise in technique.

Maybe, finally, I’ll get the need for a more engaging pull into my head.

Maybe the time away from writing was a good thing.

Morning News

03/31/14: My story, "Plunge," is live at Stoneslide Corrective. They're a cool new journal and book publisher. I used a pseudonym for this one, for future marketing considerations, as they say.

02/28/14: I'll be moderating a panel titled "Stoking the Fire," about finding the writing life that's best for you, at the annual AWP conference on Feb. 28.

10/03/13: Here come da judge! I've been named final judge for the Adult Fiction category of the Detroit Working Writers 2014 conference. I'm excited, because judging the Poetry category will be US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey! Just being mentioned in the same sentence with her is an honor.

9/24/13: Woodward Press co-publisher Dora Badger and I will present a discussion on Self Publishing Options at the annual Rochester Writers Conference on Saturday, October 5 at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Registration is still open for the event, so if you're in the area please join us.

8/1/13: The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has accepted my panel proposal for the 2014 annual conference in Seattle. "Stoking the Fire: Maintaining the Passion for Writing When Success Eludes" will feature co-presenters Kobbie Alamo, Teri Carter and Q. Lindsey Barrett.

2/8/13: Kestrel, the literary journal of Fairmont State University in West Virginia, wrote today to accept my short story, "Nixon in State." Too bad it was already accepted by Lumina (see below). I did tell them, of course, but sometimes those notes get misplaced. Still, it's nice to know the story was appreciated. The fact that it would have been Nixon's 100th birthday on Jan. 9 may have influenced these selections, but I certainly didn't write the story because of that.

1/18/13: My short story, "Nixon in State," has been accepted by Lumina, the literary magazine of the graduate writing program of Sarah Lawrence College located in Bronxville, NY.

12/19/12: A holiday present from BULL (Men's Fiction). They just emailed to say they'd like to publish my story "The Decline of the Swan." I'll post a link when it's available.

10/30/12: Two acceptances in one day! My short story, "The Killer of the Writer," has been accepted by The Lifted Brow, an excellent lit journal based in the Melbourne area of Australia. Not to brag, but here's what their fiction editor said about it: "I love this story. It's smart without being self-involved, composed without being cold, fresh without being gimmicky. There's a Bolano vibe to it that I really like, because it's such a fantastic synthesis of style and subject matter, but it never felt derivative."

10/30/12: My short story, "Every Man Unto His Family," has been accepted for Palimpsest: A Creative Journal of the Humanities, a nationally-distributed publication of the University of Colorado that includes literary fiction and poetry, film and theater scripts, creative nonfiction, and all modes of visual art.

10/5/12: My short story, "Unexplored Landscapes," has been accepted for the print issue of Prick of the Spindle, a journal published by Aqueous Books.

Tahoma Literary Review Now Open for Submissions

TLR is officially open for submissions of poetry and fiction. To find out more about this new literary journal, please visit us at Tahoma Literary Review.

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Buy My Book

The Face Maker and other stories of obsession is my collection of short stories out now from Woodward Press. Kelly Davio, author of Burn This House, says. "In stories that range effortlessly across time period and place, Joe Ponepinto delivers the kind of masculine character we crave in literary fiction; these characters wrestle with the most essential questions of morality, and they bare-knuckle box with their human frailties." Find it on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Want a signed copy? Email me at jpon (at) thirdreader (dot) com.

For the editing and tutoring services I offer, please see my companion site at Third Reader.

I am the Book Review Editor for the Los Angeles Review, a literary journal.

For links to some published stories, go to my Publications page.


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