The morning before the DFW Writers Conference officially blasted through the Fort Worth Convention Center, a small group met in a chilly corner room on the third floor of the building to discuss writing with impact, ruthless editing, and the power of reading.
The talk was led by Thomas Kunkel, an accomplished journalist, multi-published author of narrative nonfiction, and current president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. “The key to writing is writing,” he started, gripping his audience of mostly novice writers. “And reading. Do a lot of both.”
We know that. We know we’re supposed to read and write. Stephen King said it. I have said it in numerous blog posts and correspondence with authors. These are not new ideas, although they may motivate us every time, even when we aren’t great about implementing them.
Kunkel had more. “You’ve heard of the Five Ws.” We had. “In published stories, you almost always get the what, the where, the when, the who – even the how.” He paused while we all scrolled the Ws in our minds. “You almost never get the why.” Ah, that’s what we missed, in our writing and now.
“The why is what we want to know! What motivates people, moves people? Why? Often we don’t get at the why because it’s unknowable, or we haven’t looked hard enough. The greatest nonfiction writers get at the why – and once you get at the why, that’s literature.”
Kunkel had in fact brought three pieces of literature to demonstrate the “why” and other elements, like style and authenticity, how to write with impact using subtleties, foreboding, and matter-of-fact language. Three artfully done, powerful narratives that would move us. It didn’t matter that none of them had a particularly happy ending, or that the reader “kind of knew what was going to happen” right off the bat.
“The narrative pulls you in,” Kunkel explained. “It’s the journey that’s interesting.”
Kunkel wound down his talk with a short Q&A, which generated a few more words of wisdom from the speaker. “Ask questions,” he said – mostly to the journalists and historical fiction writers in the room. “People will talk to you, but sometimes you have to be persistent. It’s not rude. It’s important.”
After a smooth transition from the topic of writing to editing, Kunkel said profoundly, “Life is better edited,” then, after a collective chuckle, added, “Readers decide very quickly, is this interesting? Do I trust the writer? Details service the story and create authenticity, but don’t overdo it! Stories get constipated.”
We laughed again, but after reviewing my notes and preparing the framework of this article, I realized how true his statement is. Thomas Kunkel had a lot to say, but ruthless editing means not only cutting your own writing, it also means to cut the quotes you gather from sources. (In fiction, the things your characters say to you.) I had to cut most of Kunkel’s talk, or you would have stopped reading by now.
This kind of social contract between the author and the reader is established – or destroyed – within the first few pages (or sooner), and is based on the author’s style, content, and authenticity. Tell the story. Delete the rest. It helps to let your work sit and then have someone else look at it. “Is it crap?” Kunkel joked. “Or is it brilliant? You lose all perspective.”
Kunkel concluded, “You are the only person who will know what got cut from the story.”
The DFW Writers Convention is hosted annually by DFW Writers’ Workshop, a productive and diverse group of both amateur and accomplished writers that meet for weekly “Read and Critiques” in Euless, Texas. For information about next year’s conference, or to join DFW Writers’ Workshop, visit them online.
I also recommend finding the three pieces we examined during Thomas Kunkel’s talk, reading them, and studying them ferociously: Pure Heart by William Nack, Mr. Hunter’s Grave by Joseph Mitchell, and my favorite, The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy by Michael Paterniti.