The Most Important Thing

The most important thing you have to do with the opening of your story is bring it to life.

Make it go zing.

If that doesn’t resonate with you, then maybe so far you haven’t managed to do it. When you do, you’ll know.

There’s no rules for doing it, other than perhaps The Rule of Art, which is of absolutely no help at all. The Rule of Art: Make it Happen. (I made that up.)

I have a theory that you can make any sentence seem profound by writing the name of a dead philosopher at the end of it. —Plato

[Got that one online.]

The Rule of Art: Make it Happen. —Convivius The Uncertain

Even when you follow perfectly the Rule of Art, there are those who won’t like it. This doesn’t matter. Getting good grades from readers at an online writers’ site might feel good, but in reality it’s a meaningless exercise, because those readers are (by and large) neither successful agents nor active publishers. To put it another way, they aren’t buyers. They don’t write checks.

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So You Think You Want Rules

There’s nothing wrong with a piece of fiction so long as it works for the reader. That is the gold standard for fiction. I present as my evidence “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, which appeared in The New Yorker. It’s written as if it were a government operations manual more or less in the form of 140 character tweets. And it’s pretty ground-breaking and brilliant. Of course, as with everything, not everyone thinks so. But that’s true for all matters of opinion, isn’t it? I would also point to contemporary sitcom TV, where the old conventions of pov and the fourth wall have largely been dispensed with.

Do you think Samuel Beckett’s agent read Waiting for Godot and then asked for a rewrite, telling Beckett the characters keep forgetting what the other guy just said and repeat themselves too much?

IMHO there are a lot of things about writing fiction that are very good ideas. There are guidelines and there are techniques that are very much worth knowing. There are conventions that are often found in genre fiction. These things aren’t secrets, but one does need to go to some effort to seek them out and then figure out to apply them. This is stuff worth knowing. They generally aren’t taught in English lit courses. And they weren’t taught at all in the “creative writing” course I took in college.

Most people figuring out how to write fiction are accomplished readers. They read so easily that what they read seems (if they read good stuff) effortless. Naturally this leads to the next logical thought: how hard can it be to write this stuff that’s so easy to read? So they sign up at an online writing site and start asking questions. Which is perfectly fine so far as it goes. But you’re not going to get a grounding in the guidelines, techniques and conventions of creating fiction, and especially key questions like “why do readers read fiction?” just by asking the odd question here or there. Unless you happen to hit on the question “Why do readers read fiction?” and stumble across some people with good answers.

IMHO a writer can learn a lot more about these things from actually trying stuff out on the page, exactly the way Jane Austen did than from asking a question here or there. I think this is so because the writer is probably going to have to write a million words before she has a lot of facility with this stuff, so she might as well get busy.

But that’s just me and how I think about this stuff. I’m certainly open to better ideas.

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Description

When you ask it this way: “Which description is best?” you ask a meaningless question. Or one that anyone may answer with any sort of opinion. Unlikely that this will be helpful unless you’re goal is  to take a poll and not try to figure out how description best serves fiction.

Maybe ask rather “What do you want a description to do?”

One notion with fiction is to tell the story by causing the reader to picture things in his or her mind as if a movie of the story were taking place.

If you think of it this way, then one of the ideas of how to write prose is to make it “transparent,” so that the reader doesn’t really notice the words flowing past—the words don’t interfere with, confuse or slow down the movie-making process taking place in the reader’s mind.

A description can still be vivid, such as

guitar notes struck the air like silver dimes.

Which is from that classic of imagery and metaphor, Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron’s all but forgotten first novel.

A line like that is certainly striking, but its effect on the reader’s mind is why it is so good, taking something that’s auditory and making it visual as well. Is that what effective imagery always does or only sometimes does? Just asking.

A good thing to read on the subject of how to describe stuff in fiction is Stephen King’s essay Imagery and the Third Eye, Google it.

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Your Opening and the Great Unwashed

Instead of looking at this opening or that opening, why not start by defining the basic problem: How to open a crime story that’s going to include some kind of crime-solving person (a detective probably)?

There are two basic choices: a) the way it’s usually done or b) something different.

Robert B. Parker always does a. His detective is amused and amusing, laconic, ironic, insightful and easy to be with for the length of a novel. The writing is minimalist, what David Mamet might call “uninflected.”

The woman who came into my office on a bright January day was a knockout. Her hair had blond highlights and her fawn-colored suit appeared to have been hand-sewn by Michael Kors. She took off some sort of fur-lined cape and tossed it over the arm of my couch, and came over and sat down in one of my client chairs. She smiled at me. I smiled at her. She waited. The light coming in my window was especially bright this morning, enhanced by the light snowfall that had collected overnight. She didn’t seem dangerous. I remained calm.

Is there a simpler way to say “She smiled at me. I smiled at her. She waited.”? Does the author give the slightest damn what any literary maven may or may not think of his style? Is he interested in doing anything other than telling the story in an entertaining way?

And the ultimate test: does the reader want to know what happens next?

Note that although the narrator is quite taken with the knockout-ness of the woman, yet the description of her is sparse. Parker knows that if you say “knockout with blond highlights and oh, by the way, probably rich as hell” the reader will fill in the rest in his or her own mind.

Another point: who is more likely to have the sort of problem that piques the typical reader’s interest, that sounds like the most entertaining: a) an old woman, her coat wrapped around her like a shroud, clutching a rosary or b) knockout with blond highlights and oh, by the way, probably rich as hell? Hint: How many newsstand copies does People Magazine sell each week and who are the people that People Magazine is all about? Does this make you consider your personal opinion of people who like People Magazine? Why buys the most genre crime fiction, People Magazine readers or The New York Times Review of Books readers? I don’t know the answer, but I’m willing to guess. Hint: the NYTR has a circulation of 135,000 and People a circulation of 3.5 million.

If you’re going to write a villanelle, you must write a 19-line form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain, with two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines.

Now, you can write any damn thing you please, but if it don’t follow that form, it’s not a villanelle (or not a correct villanelle).

If you’re going to write a crime story, make it entertaining. If it’s not entertaining, it’s not a good genre story. If the reader reads the first couple paragraphs and does not find them entertaining, the chances are not good the reader will be motivated to spend $9.99 or $2.99 or $0.99 in order to be allowed to continue to read. I’m sorry about this, but it’s not my fault. It’s the crazy upside down world you’ve chosen to inhabit. I agree, you deserve better and more, but that’s the way it is.

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Conflict: Anticipation Mingled with Uncertainty

Conflict Big and Small. My 2¢.

What anyone can know is limited by one’s ability to speak about it (think about it). I know the same vocabulary everyone knows surrounding stories. This is mainly the vocabulary we learn in literature classes, supplemented by with we’ve picked up in blogs, books and sites like this.

My concern is that when the terminology becomes jargon or formula, then it can turn into misdirection rather than helpful guidelines.

Should a writer simply be encouraged to put “conflict” (whatever that means) into her wip? That might be (note the careful modifier) misdirection.

The goal of fiction is almost always to cause the reader to feel anticipation mingled with uncertainty, or perhaps curiosity, suspense and apprehension. The way to do this is to put the MC into a conflicted situation. I think it’s important to keep in mind the goal is not “put in conflict” but rather make the reader feel the way you want her to feel.

The technique is generally and almost always to put the MC into a situation where the outcome is in doubt, often a predicament.

Opening of a current Amazon bestseller, The Last Man, Vince Flynn:

The four dead men were lined up on the living room floor of the safe house. Mitch Rapp started with the one on the left . . . (etc. description of the four, and then at the end of the first para): There was nothing about this mess to give Rapp any assurance that things would be fine, but this last little twist cracked open the door on something he did not want to consider.

The novel is typical genre, of course, distracting froth for those who like this sort of thing. But the writer has technique. Something he did not want to consider. The MC is in a conflicted situation. The MC is conflicted and the reader is invited to feel anticipation mingled with uncertainty.

How much has the technique of a. mingled with u. has changed over the years?

The man in the powder-blue suit—which wasn’t powder-blue under the lights of the Club Bolivar—was tall, with wide-set gray eyes, a thin nose, a jaw of stone. He had a rather sensitive mouth. His hair was crisp and black, ever so faintly touched with gray, as by an almost diffident hand. His clothes fitted him as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past. His name happened to be Mallory.

He held a cigarette between the strong, precise fingers of one hand. He put the other hand flat on the white tablecloth, and said:

“The letters will cost you ten grand, Miss Farr. That’s not too much.”

That’s a Raymond Chandler in a story Blackmailers Don’t Shoot copyright 1933, originally in Black Mask magazine.

What’s the conflict, i.e., what causes the reader to feel a. mingled with u.? The a. is we are in for a fun ride: jaw of stone, sensitive mouth; clothes as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past; the letters ten grand, then the twist—that’s not too much. The u. is in the disparate elements, how they will weave together to provide us with a satisfying result. We’re confident we’re going to get a satisfying result because of the terrific originality of that first para, the author letting it all hang out, not holding back, saying yeah, it’s a formula yarn with a formula detective, but it’s going to have stuff in it like an almost diffident hand and if you don’t like it, screw off, I’m not explaining anything. The writing has an absolute feeling of commitment and confidence. It speaks directly to something we are subliminally looking for, letting us know we’re in the hands of an author we can trust. Mallory has inner conflicts: jaw vs. mouth, and conflict is also projected onto Miss Farr, ten grand for the letters, or else.

Raymond Chandler understood perfectly what he was doing, creating a. mingled with u. There’s a quote I think is by him (Ross probably knows it) saying that a reader will read a good detective story even if the last chapter is missing. The point being that everything along the way keeps the reader feeling a. mingled with u. and that’s what the reader wants to feel, that’s what the reader is reading for.

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Flashbacks

How can you tell when flashbacks are unnecessary?

The question goes to the heart of the matter: who am I writing for and where is his or her sweet spot?

Any time you veer away from telling the story that is taking place, you need to test against your own inner reader whether or not the flashback or the digression or the venture off into this or that is going to pall on the reader and make him or her antsy or cause him or her to start scanning in hopes that the story will soon return.

How do you judge this (and it is a matter of judgement)? A big part of learning to write any kind of copy, or indeed creating any kind of craft work or art that you would like someone to be willing to pay money for involves developing your own willingness and ability to put yourself into the shoes of your reader, and developing your own inner balance wheel and associated techniques for deciding whether whatever-it-is works or doesn’t work.

What, you thought you would just sit down and rattle off a best-seller? You thought learning to write fiction would be a lot easier than getting through law school?

By associated techniques I mean the crafty things like bringing the tension to such a pitch that the reader, in anticipation of that tension being resolved, is willing to put up with what she hopes will be a temporary delay of some kind of impending gratification, and stuff like that.

And of course making sure that the flashback or whatever is in and of itself something of interest and interestingly conveyed.

The most fundamental way to assure yourself that a flashback “works” for the reader is to make sure that it’s something your reader wants to know, as opposed to something you the writer want the reader to know. What the reader wants to know is the channel where the river wishes to flow.

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Anticipation

What I really want to say sometimes in a crit sounds so cryptic that I don’t bother trying to get into it, but it’s this: You need to get more into your character, live more inside her, and at the same you need to see her more objectively.

The title Legs put on this thread for me holds the key: inducing.

How do you induce and what is it you want to induce? Here’s most of a thread I posted elsewhere back in January that might bear on what Legs is trying to get at:

I think one needs to look at 1) what the reader wants and 2) what the reader wants but doesn’t know she wants, which is another way of trying to get at the immediate payoff/reward/tingly-something the reader gets from fiction that works.

Generally speaking in genre fiction at the beginning the reader needs to get clued in on the basics: where am I? what’s going on? whose skin am I in?

These things (I think) generally need to be there, and they need to be interesting. But the reader’s tingly area really is enticed not by what’s going on now, and certainly not by the past (the deadliness of exposition at the beginning), but the reader is beguiled by the future, by the possibilities, by curiosity, by what appears to be in the offing. What I’m trying to talk about here is writing in such a way that you give the reader a sense of anticipation underlined in italics because I think it is a key element often overlooked or not understood.

Lisa mentions wanting to insert “cookies” into her wip, and I think her writing mind and her instincts are aiming toward a sense of anticipation.

I hate to talk about this stuff in vague generalities because I’ve read so many things that talk about fiction and craft this way, and there’s only a very few of them that I’ve ever been able to understand. So let me try to explain what I mean by examples.

In “The Time Traveller’s Wife” by Audrey (“Don’t Need No Pen Name to Sell Books”) Niffenegger, the book opens with Clare Abshire writing (but it feels like speaking) in the first person. The first three sentences establish the basics I mentioned above. Then in the fourth sentence she acknowledges “a sort of Christmas-morning sense”. What is a Christmas-morning sense if not a sense of anticipation? In the second paragraph Clare turns and comes face to face with Henry. “I am jubilant,” Clare writes. So she has a Christmas-morning sense and now, quickly, she is jubilant. Does this make you curious, give you another shot of anticipation? Henry looks at her patiently, uncertain but polite. Her reaction: “I can barely refrain from throwing my arms around  him. It is obvious that he has never seen me before in his life.”

He has never seen her before, she is madly in love with him. The whole opening is designed to make the reader intensely curious, to give the reader a powerful kick in the sense of expectation, excitement and suspense, which are all synonyms for anticipation.

Or take “A Wanted Man”, Lee Child’s most recent book. First line: “The eyewitness said he didn’t actually see it happen.” Three men walked into a concrete bunker, two came out. Then blood pooled out from under the concrete bunker’s door. Maybe 150 words in, we switch to Jack Reacher’s pov not knowing any more than the eyewitness, but with a powerful sense of anticipation that there is a whole lot more to this episode, and Jack Reacher is going to become very much involved in what happened in that bunker, how and why.

Here’s the opening of “Drive” by James Sallis, which I think is another terrific example of building in anticipation, making the reader want to know what’s going to happen next:

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room.

This paragraph is filled with “forwards,” which is the name David Ball gives to those anticipation cues in his book “Backwards and Forwards, A Technical Manual for Reading Plays,” Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. The paragraph is filled with these forwards: why is he sitting there with his back against a wall? the lapping blood (whose?), the terrible mistake (what was it, why did he make it?), the pressure of the city waking up around him (will he be discovered?), and who is weeping in the next room and why?

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