Start With A Story

Way back in the early 90s, I decided to revisit a notion I’d toyed with for years, which was to become a science fiction writer. As part of that effort, I subscribed to Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, which was (and is) the best short story market available.

Back then, Isaac Asimov himself was semi-retired (he occasionally lamented that the science fiction world had “passed him by”), but he always introduced each issue with an essay. Though I always enjoyed his writing and, like so many budding writers of my generation, grew up on the Foundation and I, Robot series, I wasn’t really interested in reading the intros. I wanted to move on to the actual stories, especially given how little time I had available to do non-professional reading.

Yet, his essays were irresistible. I never missed one, and remember some to this day.

It turns out that he was using an excellent writer’s trick that he explained in one of his many books on writing: he started each one with a brief story.

He’d talk about some event that took place in his life, involving travel, or children, or a conference, or pretty much anything. He wouldn’t spend too much time on it, and ultimately he’d tie it into what he really wanted to talk about that issue. But the effect was immediate — you were pulled into the story and wanted to know how it all turned out.

(I’d quote some of them here, but my copies of the issues from back then, if they even exist anymore, are buried in boxes deep in my basement bearing giant “Danger! Here Be Daemons!” labels. Actually, if they really were marked that way, they’d be easier to find.)

While I never became a real sf writer (a story for another day), I definitely took that advice to heart. Whenever the form allows it, I start anything I’m writing with a tiny story. Most of my blog posts work that way. I do the same thing in my presentations.

The structure can be remarkably loose, and doesn’t actually have to be about me. The key requirements are only that the story has to be interesting and that it has to be short. Some I’ve used recently:

  • “My wife has an old car with over 225,000 miles on it. My son and I have been bugging her about getting a new one. You know how here in Canada my phone doesn’t work? Well, I just got an email from my insurance company with my ‘new’ insurance card.”
  • “I’ve been reading about Bayes’ Rule and statistics recently. Did you know that Pierre Simon Laplace, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, was disowned by his father when he refused to go into the clergy? I’ve been thinking about what jobs my son could go into that would cause me to disown him. My short list includes patent troll, spammer, TSA groper, and any I.T. job that has the word ‘evangelist’ in it.”
  • “I saw a great tweet yesterday. Do you know why George R. R. Martin can’t use Twitter? Because he’s already killed off all 140 characters.”
  • “You know how you know you’ve been traveling too much? I’m ashamed to admit I drove over to the site today and sat in the parking lot for ten solid minutes trying to remember what state I was in. That’s not good.”
  • “Last night I was looking on the Internet for a list of palindromes for some code we’re going to write today. Did you know that ‘Flee to me, remote elf?’ is a palindrome? How about ‘Go hang a salami; I’m a lasagna hog’? Or even, ‘Sex at noon taxes’?”
  • “Way back in the 90s, I tried to become a science fiction writer…” (I see what you did there)

Those are pretty generic. I try to keep an eye on slashdot or reddit or related sites to see if there are any relevant news items, too. Like during an Android class, I’ll show people the latest information about the mobile marketplace, or how there’s a huge debate going on right now about the best way to introduce apps into cars. Or if I’m teaching anything related to Java (including Groovy and/or Grails) I talk about the Java 8 release and ask about any plans for adoption. Or, as I did last January, I’ll remind those students I met in St. Cloud, MN (temperature -24F before windchill) that in this country we’re allowed to live in warmer places.

It’s simple, but it has the effect of getting everyone’s attention. Try it out on your next article, or tech talk, or lunch-and-learn, or whatever. Next week I expect to open with “Hey, did you notice that the UConn men’s AND women’s basketball teams just won the NCAA Championship? Well, nyah, nyah, nyah.”

I’ll let you know how that goes over. 🙂

2 responses to “Start With A Story”

  1. So… how did it go over? 🙂

    I have a some family members who went to/are fans of Wisconsin. Still stings a little…

  2. I’ve never had a gag fall so flat in my life. I got no reaction at all. Total crickets.

    Oh well. At least the talk went well.

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