Tuesday, 3 April 2007
More On Openings
I have written before on openings, most particularly in "How To Open Without a Bang" There I talked about how trying for effect was often false and off-putting and set the story off on the wrong foot. Remember, too, that editors and judges KNOW all the tricks. If you try to con them they can use the circular file.
I've mentioned too, that the dialogue opener, beloved of the cheap magazine editor is a rarity in modern quality fiction. The higher up the scale you go (in terms of quality) the rare is the dialogue opener OR the big-bang opener. My advice was, and still is, to consciously avoid both and instead seek out the right voice and tone and psychological direction for your story. Show that editor or judge you have confidence in your ability. Make the opening show that you aren't desperate to please. Instead you are doing what's right for the story; you're a professional.
I thought I would look at some published openings, NOT chosen because they are world beaters, and try to explain what I would see as an editor or judge. Here is the first opening from a story called The Golden Horde of Mississippi.
All that long morning of her cousin Bobby's funeral. Jessica Sue had meant to tell Grandma Lucy about the Golden Horde of Mississippi, but she and the old woman had been fighting as usual and the music video just hadn't come up.
Stop there! Look how much you have already. We know TIME and have a fair idea of PLACE, and generally we can sense it's "Deep South". We know someone has died, that the protagonist is female and we have this hook, the Golden Horde, a sense of the two women's ages, and immediate conflict. Forty-two words and the author is winning!
Now go to your own latest story and ask how much does your first 42 words do!
To be fair, Jessica was wearing a ratty pair of Dickie's jeans and a faded Megadeath T-shirt, which she knew perfectly well was not proper funeral attire. But she hadn't come home for Christmas vacation expecting her cousin Bobby to slide his Harley-Davison up under an eighteen-wheeler. And anyway, this was how Booby would've wanted her to dress and wasn't it his funeral after all? Wasn't he the one cremated and packed into that lavender and gold cloisonné urn up there on the mantelpiece?
So now we have the main character's looks, and a huge chunk of her personality, we can hear her voice and we know that there's conflict.
Now what does this tell me, not about the story, but about the writer? I can see he/she has done work, has cut out the rubbish, has tightened and sharpened and delivered a hack of a lot of information, character and voice, all in a total of 126 words. In Boot Camp terms this opener is 13-14, probably 14 and I could bet pretty good money that the story will be professional throughout and score 120 at a minimum, possibly far higher. When I read the next paragraph the story actually jumps in quality and I could bet a limb or two that the story is a winner.
No one wanted to rent the Chen's apartment. It sat vacant for three months, collecting dust and heat. Footsteps now and then echoed along the wood floors. Voices came and went. Sometimes the drone of a fly butting itself against the glass. Eventually, the fly – its legs as thin as eyelashes – dried on the kitchen window-sill.
Yes! Straight away. Again there is tension, but look at the simplicity which is in fact almost poetry. There's great economy here. We sense the apartment and its emptiness, and the fly is just great.
With this alone I'm very close to thinking '14' (11 is solid par) and I would expect the story to get better and better. As much as the story promises, so does the writer. This is another story which just stamps its authority in a few words.
The story proceeds with Mr Chen showing someone round the apartment. He's very unconvinced. It's turning out to be a bad investment. His wife says, "Other than you and I getting married, this apartment has been the biggest mistake of our lives."
Essay 3: Leda and the Swan
Although the swan is not a delicate creature like a butterfly, and is not cuddly and cute like a kitten, it is a living thing that can feel pain and hunger just like any other living creature. In "Leda and the Swan", by William Butler Yeats, a perverted sort of swan ends up performing sexual intercourse with a loose girl called Leda.
I'm immediately hooked here (I would prefer to say "tilted" or "intrigued") and the voice is deliciously "off" and silly. I expect a lot of fun to come, but I'd bet this will be poignant and not merely funny.
The motive of the swan is shown when he performs only a few foreplays, like caressing her "thighs" and gripping her "helpless breast" before revealing his "feathered glory". He's got only one thing on his mind: shuddering his loins. This swan is clearly a sex-starved animal that doesn't belong in Ireland, let alone a cit park! In this essay, I will argue that Mr. Yeats is actually a mentally ill person who lives poetically through swans and furthermore knows nothing about swans and their gentile mating habits.
Again, delicious, loads of promise to come, and see the error "gentile" for gentle. And now look:
First of all, Mr. Yeats is a mentally ill person who lives, poetically through swans. I know this for a fact because my older sister Jeannie, is mentally ill and used to write poems about animals before she ran away from home and became a missing person. However, since she isn't a pervert, the poems were not about intercoursing swans.
How can we not like this one helluva lot? It's going to be funny but darkly so, almost certainly. But could I put this on the finalist's pile? Yes. Is it another 14+ opener? Yes.