Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Opening Lines and Opened Zippers

During the early drafts of a story, you are often overcome by the notion of it not having begun at the proper place, which is the literary equivalent of a writer being told his zipper is opened.

Of equal truth and occasions for embarrassment, there comes the uncomfortable feeling that a story does not end in the proper place, that you've spent hours trying to fit things onto a narrative that don't fit for the simple reason that they do not belong.

As it stands now, two of your favorite short story writers are producing materials that have long entranced you with their narrative, their characters, and the quirky ways with which their characters lean into reality.  

Your absolute favorite for beginnings is the southwestern New Mexico writer, Lee K. Abbott.  Some years back, one of your trusted and esteemed readers once remarked that Abbott had nothing on you when it came to beginnings.  Your head was in the clouds for weeks, which is of course good for the ego but not so much for the technique. 

Ann Beattie is no slouch with her opening sentences, and you find yourself looking at them from time to time as a reminder of the kinds of tension and vigor these instruments must carry.  But her endings are, so far as you are concerned, even more worth study.  

Her endings have the effect of taking you up to the edge of a cliff, giving you a shove, then getting you to talk to yourself on the way down, reminiscent in so many ways of Wile E. Coyote, too focused on his quarry to see that he has overrun the edge of the mesa.

Among the things you do well as an editor and teacher, you demonstrate the knack to determine where a story begins,  This is, you believe, no mere accident.  Instead, it comes from the equivalent of an exercise you have been performing longer and with more devotion than many of the other techniques that want to be practiced on a regular basis.  

The exercise is time spent writing as many provocative opening sentences as you can.  This exercise began one afternoon when, after sitting at your typewriter for a number of hours with no satisfactory results, you decided to focus on irresistible opening sentences.

The goal of the opening sentence is to embed so much curiosity and layered implication within the reader that the reader must read the second sentence.  Even if the reader stops reading after the third sentence, having discovered she or he does not relate to the plight of your character, you have experienced a primary victory and have at the same time reinforced your belief that stories are told a sentence at a time, edited a sentence at a time, indeed read a sentence at a time.

When you find a short story you admire, say Tobias Wolff's memorable "Bullet in the Brain," you find yourself reviewing it to see how far you can get before a sentence stops you, causes you to question its appropriateness within the narrative.  Ah, the many times you've read through the Wolff story, finding no distractions.  And the many times you've read through Lee K. Abbott, Ann Beattie, Louise Erdrich, Deborah Eisenberg.  And the reaffirmation of a splendid truth:  Each writer begins with the right first sentence, ends with it.  

Now that you think about it, the short fiction of Thomas McGuane has that effect on you as well, at one point causing you to set down his story, find a pad of paper, then begin writing your own, set miles away, with a different protagonist and a different theme.

Two dear friends of yours have written books about openings, Donald Newlove about opening paragraphs, and Barnaby Conrad, taking on the opening sentence.  When you find yourself trudging through a thick slough of narrative, you turn to one or the other, sometimes even both, looking for that primary focus of the narrative line.  Once you've got that in sight, you feel the equivalent of a seismic shift, of a sheet of ice calving, of a landslide, of the surge leading to an ocean wave, building, gathering momentum.

Opening lines rarely come at the beginning; they often reveal themselves, waiting for you to see them.  After all this time, you know they are there, even when you have been lulled into thinking you have already found the proper opening line. 

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