I just came across an article that was published in May of 2004 on the our old website Peace Corps Writers that is worthy of republishing for all those contemplating — or are in the midst of — writing a book. — M

The Ticking

by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98)

THERE IS a classic fiction-writing-workshop story that goes something like this:

A man drove home from work, pulled into his driveway, and parked his car. As he opened his front door he called out, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!” Then he settled into his favorite chair, exhausted, to read the evening paper.

“Sweetheart, I’m just putting a pie in the oven,” he heard his wife call out from the kitchen. “Dinner will be ready in about a half hour.”

“Great,” said her husband, “I’m starving to death.”

“So what?” you say? “Who cares?” You put the story down right there. You have better things to do than read any more about these two too-ordinary people and their ho-hum suburban life.

My point exactly.

The revised version of this story might go something like this:

An evil elf climbed through the basement window of a suburban bungalow as the woman in the kitchen was rolling pastry dough for pie and singing softly to herself. The elf planted a ticking time bomb at the base of their old oil burner. The bomb was set to detonate in 30 minutes. The elf quickly climbed back out of the window and ran away.

Two minutes later, the owner drove home from work, pulled into his driveway, and parked his car. As he opened his front door he called out, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!” Then he settled into his favorite chair, exhausted, to read the evening paper.

“Sweetheart, I’m just putting a pie in the oven,” he heard his wife call out from the kitchen. “Dinner will be ready in about a half hour.”

“Great,” said her husband, “I’m starving to death.”

Interested now? Care to read on? Why? Because of the ticking.

This far-fetched story only serves to illustrate the writer’s obligation to engage the reader in some way — if not with an evil elf, then with some other device that will create “the ticking,” something that will pique the reader’s interest and urge him or her to read on.

If the writer is too close to his or her “pie dough” to hear the time bomb ticking in the basement of the house, perhaps an editor can come to the rescue.

Sarah Erdman’s excellent account of her two years in rural Cote d’Ivoire, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha [Henry Holt and Co., 2003] comes to mind. Was it Sarah, I wonder, or her editor who suggested she begin her vivid chronicle with “A Memory,” out of chronological order? My guess is it was her editor who rearranged the chapters, like a shell game, to get the reader “hooked.”

From page one the reader is plunged into a dramatic, difficult-birth scene in a mud hut in the middle of the night, in which the frightened and inexperienced young health Volunteer is flipping through her Birthing for Midwives manual by headlamp-light, searching desperately for answers.

The swollen head emerged slowly, and then the neck — noosed with a blue umbilical cord. I turned back to my book, trying frantically to find this particular complication. After the tense and sluggish delivery of the head, the rest of the baby slid right out, flopping against a cloth on the ground. I was used to scenes of babies smacked and screaming seconds out of the womb. This one lay still, translucent and whiter than me. The hut filled with our breathing.

And so the ticking begins. We are invested in knowing what happens next. The author then deftly takes us back to the beginning; and we follow, as if under a spell, every step of the way.

One of the roles the manuscript editor plays is to act as the reader’s advocate, helping to bridge the gap between the writer’s cherished prose and the reader’s need to remain engaged. A good editor guides the words and shapes the story into something the reader would want to read. Writing a book may indeed be a solitary, agonizing pursuit, but getting that book published has to be a collaborative effort. A person who aspires to be a published author with a wide readership ignores this collaboration at his or her own peril.

What the American reading public needs now, more than ever, it seems to me, in this time of arrogant isolationism and creeping imperialism, is something Peace Corps writers are supremely poised to offer: stories drawn from our unique experience that take readers to far-off, “poor,” places — places they’d never otherwise visit and might too easily dismiss — and show them the rich lessons we learned there. Our responsibility to “bring the world home” has never been more urgent.

These stories, in order to reach the widest possible audience, must be well crafted, using every means of intellectual seduction possible to pull the reader in, capture his or her interest, and keep him or her engaged. Some of these methods include: compelling, well drawn characters; vivid descriptions of place; believable, true-to-life dialogue; logical, architectural structure; appropriate pacing; and, yes, please, ticking.

Bonnie Lee Black served as a health Volunteer after having been a writer/editor and food professional in NYC for many years. An honors graduate of Columbia University’s writing program, she is the author of the nonfiction books, Somewhere Child (Viking Press, NY, 1981), How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010) and How To Make An African Quilt:The Story of the Patchwork Project of Segou, Mali.