One of the interesting side-effects of an author being asked to write on craft is to realise how much of his own techniques of writing and rewriting are not always clear to him. It's often the case that a student's question temporarily throws me, but that when I search my own thinking, I discover I DO work to a set of rules and CAN answer the question.
I have been asked about editing my own work, how I go about polishing and rewriting shorts. Once again, I think, heck, how DO I do it?
But then I also think, how do I mark stories submitted to me as an editor or when I judge a competition? What are the things I see which make me respond negatively, what are those which make me feel positive about the piece? Essentially, rewriting is about removing those negatives and enhancing the positives.
The first page is crucial to every story, important to a novel, vital to a short. In an increasingly competitive literary world, it's essential that something in the opening seduces, attracts. It's essential that the opening promises and feels right. If you've read my article "How to Open Without a Bang" you'll know that this grabbing does not mean forcing drama or intrigue into the opening paragraphs but rather that it sets a tone, a mood and a feel that an experience is here and following.
We are forced to make it clear in our writing that we are better than the rest, not so samey, not so boring, not so clichéd. We smile. Our story, we say, is different, stronger, more compelling, better-written.
When editing, I always look very hard at my openings. I spend a lot of time before writing getting the openings right, but still, when I'm re-drafting I think very hard about every aspect of the start.
Is the tone and rhythm right for the type of story I'm hoping to present? Are the word-choices the best ones? My opening should be manipulating the reader's mood. Does it? Does it really create the right mood?
This might seem obvious but in fact is one of the main reasons I fail stories I receive. They open suggesting comedy only to become tragedies, or they open heavily only to reveal themselves as light twist-in-the-tale stories.
Ideally we should know where we are going, but some writers only know when they've arrived. OK, but now rewrite. Most writers I meet don't rewrite, they tinker. It's tough to make ourselves delete long passages when there they are on the PC just waiting to be cut-and-pasted into draft two.
You've started a story you thought was going to be light-hearted about a mix-up of tickets for a play but some profound image which you accidentally stumbled on made you realise that you had discovered a richer, more profound story about fate. Great, but have you now re-set the music of the opening to foreshadow that deeper meaning, or are we, your readers, still thinking lightweight, partly from the words of the opener, but also from the tone, the musical quality, the lack of deep resonance?
There was a long article about how I edited a much-rejected story Postcards from BalloonLand into a prize-winner which has since been reprinted many times.
The single biggest problem with selling "Postcards" was that it was delivered low-key, even though it's about a man with only weeks to live. It started with three postcards, two from the man's children and the third from the wife. These are "quiet" paragraphs; only later do things thicken up.
Later (I hate it when a writer tells me "later it gets good") the paragraphs reveal themselves to be obliquely referring to the symptoms of the protagonist's terminal illness, but as they appeared in earlier failing drafts they had nothing which called to the reader, settle down, this is something deep about life -- it is not just some touristy thing about Orlando.
Dear Dawn, We're in DisneyLand! Dad promised us that if it was the last thing he ever did we were going to go to America and go to Florida and go to Orlando and go to Disney and stop in the Contemporary Resort. It's very hot. The grass is funny. There are hundreds of dead good things in the shops.
Today I'd want this letter to be "doing much more". Here the child had heard the father say "If it's the last thing I ever do" and the actual or possible meaning was lost in the cliché. Also the word dead appears, but really, the paragraph simply doesn't do enough and, relatively the writing is weak.
Worse, this opening could be some awful story, hack writing about a holiday. How many of those rejecting editors didn't get past the first page, how many thought, "Oh no, another Jack goes to Disney"...?
A famous-name author might get away with being slight and critics no doubt would then herald his bravery, but for us ordinary folk, we have to minimise the risks of being written off before the story begins.
In "Postcards" I added the following two lines bolded and italic.
There are things we should say, things we should not.
And there are things we want to say but have never learned how.
Now we are saying, expect more than the bare words. If we read Ray Carver we expect the words to have depth. Sure, every literary "expert" will tell you, Carver's simple-looking texts are "obviously" good, but in a competition, from an anonymous stranger, when the judge has to read 500 stories this week -- I'm not so sure. It's my great fear that I'll overlook a great and be like the man who turned down the Beatles.
So point one, we should re-read our opening and test it for the correct tone and weight and feel that's appropriate to the overall intent of the work; point two, we should ensure that what we know is right and good can't be misread as weak. This is not so uncommon. How do we write a boring person being boring without the opening being so boring the editors falls asleep? How do we write about a person who thinks and speaks in clichés without it seeming our writing is cliché-ridden?
We shouldn't have to do this, but we do have to do this. Just like the sweet sensitive guy who just happens to look like an inmate of San Quentin has to somehow show he's not, nor is he Bluebeard or Hannibal the Cannibal we have to always be aware of the signals we give -- and we get just one chance to make a first impression.
Next, still with the opening, I have to ask, is this the opening? Over half the stories I receive have half-openings, warm-ups, scene-settings, finger-exercises, before finally getting to the meat of the story. How-to books will say start in media res. Carver said he tried to start at the point of conflict.
It's an interesting exercise to remove the opening paragraph, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth and ask, in truth, how much don't I now know, how much doesn't make sense? This summer I read a student's story. The core story was the revenge of a ghost, a dead wife determined not to pass-over until she had paid back her pig of a husband. That part of the story was fine, solid, fast-moving, funny and with a tinge of deep sadness.
But the lead up to the woman's death was a final row, a trip by car to the airport, details of the weather, the meal on the airplane, small-talk with the man next to her on the plane, and THEN, bang, and a page later the plane crashed. I replaced all this with "After she had died in a plane crash off Bahrein, Elsie Smithers decided..." One sentence replacing three pages.
And here is a recent opening of mine, from a story entitled "Yellow, Black, Red, Blue" which just came third in a UK competition and will be published in March:
After he had died -- suddenly and very surprisingly as it turned out, one quite pleasant Sunday afternoon as he was mowing the lawn -- (an old Roman well was underneath his front garden, but that's not important) -- Henry James Munro was supposed to learn to fly and he found it difficult.
In one paragraph we get to the point. The guy is DEAD. But he's still the main, this is some sort of afterlife story...and the tone is a bit unusual, convoluted language (it reflects the main's character)...
When editing it's important to be ruthless. I usually ask my students to cut at least 30% of the story. The easiest place to do this is the opening. At first we think this is impossible. "But if I cut the first page, how will people know that Jack is claustrophobic, and Mary is the illegitimate child of the Count?"
My answer usually is, does it matter? But IF it matters, it's amazing how often we can replace those two relatively boring pages with some neat introduction.
When the lift stopped between floors and Mary saw Jack begin to sweat she remembered her rules of First-Aid. To distract Jack from his fear of closed spaces she told him about her father, not Homer Martin, her real father, Count Oblonsky.
I've mentioned that the tone and feel of the opening, like theme music in a film, is important to setting up the contract with the reader, and important to making the reader read in a certain way, with a certain expectation.
So my theme, the knowledge gained from awareness of the movement and changes in the characters, the residual meaning of the plot, why it matters, is, whenever possible, alluded to in the opening.
The point of "Postcards from BalloonLand" was that the father felt the children were too young to simply be told he was dying. Within the story balloons and an invented BalloonLand are people and Heaven; at the end he writes postcards to be read at certain times after his death. So the title, (the title is the most important line of our opening) and the two lines about things we don't know how to say, are "wrapping up", much of the theme, the deeper meaning of the story.
If the opening sets up the correct mood and "way of seeing" it's far more likely the reader will read and absorb the subtleties of your writing. Like the classic opening "This is the saddest story I ever heard." We are left in no doubt how to feel.
My story "The Bastard William Williams, the Writer, Allen Jones" opens:
I am the bastard William Williams, late of The Universal Pit, Senghennydd, then the pit at Abertridwr, and latterly the cellars of The Commercial Hotel, as pot man. Now that the dust have slowed me I am easy to find. I am still lived next door to the English Congregational Church, Commercial Road, Senghennydd. I venture from my place only for the English Cong, and in summer, if I am lucky, a visit from a relation.
We instantly know this is Welsh, first-person, that William's bastardry is important to him. We get a feel for him, his character and attitude, that he's rarely visited, and we know (from the title too) that a visitor will likely be important.
And here - in a story called "Blinkin' Owl":
My brother is out of bed today and we pretend to play cards. We could talk about anything, it's been a long life, but we're talking about Blinkin' Owl. He swears blind he scored two goals that day but he didn't; I got one, he got one and Dezzy Thomas scored a cracker, cutting in from the corner flag and just letting fly with a forty-yarder.
We can guess (quickly confirmed) that this story revolves around the love and rivalry of two brothers, that they aren't young, that one is dying. Soccer is likely to arise throughout the story both factually and as a metaphor. This short paragraph is followed by "trivial" dialogue about a game in which the brothers played, then this:
"It was a cracking goal, Col. Best game we ever played."
"And it was freezing: pissed down for the whole ninety minutes."
There's a hospital silence, clocks buzzing, their second hands like wands; useless. Then Colin looks up at me. His eyes are wet when he speaks, this time slowly and with an ache, dark and lovely at the same time, like cello music.
"And what would you give for just one more run out?" he asks.
The writer has started in the middle of the action, he has set out his stall, he has ensured the tone and mood and music reflect his story's intent, he has encapsulated much of his theme in the opening, it's as tight and trimmed of fat as he could make it.