Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Suspicious Characters, Calling out from the Shadows

By the time you'd reached the point of recognizing how important the first sentence of a story or longer work was to you as a writer, the matter of plotting began to fade into the distance. This is not to say plotting was in any significant way present.  You worried about it in spite of all the writing you did failing in large measure to turn up many signs of it.

The immediate consequences of intriguing openings changed your reading preferences, the way your narrative voice sounded, and brought to you a sense that you would be read and listened to for at lease a paragraph.

One friend compared your stories sounding like a train, coming out of a long tunnel. Although you weren't quite sure what this meant, you were impressed, particularly since this same friend also said your opening sentences put her in mind of Lee K. Abbott. You didn't know what that meant, either, but with some promptness, you strove to find out.

Well beyond the notion of "the sooner the better," there are certain dangers in being compared favorably to a writer for whom you have vast admiration and respect. Danger number one is doing things consciously to below the radar to incorporate aspects of that individual into your work.

It is nothing, or at least a negligible thing to be compared to a writer you have no use for, however successful that writer is. You pass off the comparison as having no consequence, steadfast in your belief that if you were as popular as someone whose work you did not respect, say Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, you would not consider the comparison to have been based on an understanding of your work. Of course no one has compared you to Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, leaving the matter academic and moot.

For that matter, no one has compared you with Mark Twain, although that did not deter you from trying to sound like him. Nor, even when you thought you'd been able to pull down his voice and style in much the same way Kevin Spacey is so readily able to imitate other actors, no one either told you you captured Twain or that you ought to stop trying to sound like Twain and sound more like yourself.

Considering your narrative voice, your goal is to write the way you speak and speak the way you write, but from all appearances, you don't sound like anyone because no one has spoken of admiration for your narrative voice--no one, that is, except for the friend who said your opening sentences put her in mind of the short fiction of Lee K. Abbott.

"She was Betty Porter," Abbott wrote in "Ninety Nights on Mercury,"a being as much of magic as of muscle, and I who I ever am--Heath 'Pokey' Howell (Junior) banker, Luna County commissioner and, as events will prove, the dimmest of sinners, male type."

He also wrote: "Ten months after she left (he told the boys(, he got the letter, 'I'm calling myself Ida now.'"

You approach his collections of short stories the way you'd approach a fresh bottle of Wild Turkey and a pitcher of ice water, with a respectful caution, mindful of how quickly respect can turn to overconfidence. His characters call out to you from the shadows, from rooms where the lights are off, or sometimes from murky parking lots, asking if you happened to have one of those flashlight aps on your cellphone.

Your own characters are suspicious enough, thanks to the things they want or wish to avoid in the first sentences of your stories. Sometimes they even tell you to go fuck yourself, then draw you aside to apologize, telling you not to take the matter too personally, because they tell everyone on occasion to go fuck themselves.

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