18 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part III

Susan Slaterby Susan Slater

In previous weeks, we answered three critical questions about writing fiction. We pick up this week with two more questions and then give you the opportunnity to participate.

• Question: Why is word choice so important starting off?

• Answer: You don’t get a second chance to do it right!

To establish mood, introduce character… Readers are unforgiving. They’ll often put a book down before they’ll make excuses for you and keep on reading… yeah, even your best friends will find it difficult to keep reading telling themselves it will get better. If you’ve disappointed them, there’s probably another book on the nightstand or already in the Kindle that promises to be better. It’s competitive out there— don’t forget that! Whether the reader continues is often “set” by the end of the first paragraph. The term “hook” is used when describing how the reader is roped in, committed from the very start. You have an obligation to your readers— a lot of things rolled into one—to entice, promise something worthy of their time, set up the framework (character, setting, plot) and you better deliver right from the very first word!

Consider what we know from the 5 word opening of April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black: “Momma, are you a virgin?”

We know the approximate age of the speaker (probably pre-teen or just turned 13); we know the extent of her sexual knowledge; we know she trusts her mother with “delicate” material; and because of this we know right up front “character roles.” And we know that the book fits into the “Coming of Age” genre. Whew! That’s a lot in just five little words!

• Question: What’s in a name?

• Answer: Everything!
The Pumpkin Seed Massacre
NÂș 1 in Ben Pecos series

Would you have finished Moby Dick if the first line had read: “Call me, Larry”? Make names work for you and establish names upfront. If you write a series, give your protagonist a name that will last and be easy to remember: Kinsey, Walt Longmire, John Rebus, Harry Bosch, Ben Pecos, Leaphorn and Chee.

Names can establish age. For example, today 90% of those named Susan are 50 years of age or older. What about names like Edith? Nettie? Or Mame? They instantly suggest another era. While names like Britney, Misty Dawn, Amber and Tiffany might suggest younger women with tattoos. Likewise for men—those named Donald are usually over fifty, the same for Frank, Arnold, Arthur, Harold, Herbert, and Stanley. Those younger tattooed bikers might be a Josh, Brett, or Brandon. It remains to be seen if the Apples, Sparrows, Blankets, and Shilohs of the world will cause a stampede of like namings.

Exercises
Exercise 1— Starting with Dialogue

He saw her leaving the Mall by the side door and caught up with her just as she slipped behind the wheel of the Mini-Van.

“Stephanie.” He caught his breath, “And Eric.” He hadn’t seen the man in the passenger’s seat at first.

Directions: Write a paragraph of dialogue among these 3 persons—identify them only by voice or action; do not use he said / she said.
* * *
Exercise 2— Identify Approach You’ve Used

Look at an opening paragraph from your own writing. How and why do you started the story where you did? Would you do things differently after today’s discussion?
* * *
Exercise 3— The Very First Sentence

The word beginning is a misnomer—you aren’t beginning something; you’re plopping the reader down in the middle of something that’s been ongoing.

Consider these first lines:
  1. “They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.” The Lady with the Dog, Anton Chekhov
  2. “She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.” Gesturing, John Updike
  3. “I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.” Medley, Toni Cade Bambara
  4. “Jericha believed herself already an orphan—her mother was in the ground by the time she could walk on it—so the loss of her father when it came was not an exceptional thing.” Jump-up Day, Barbara Kingsolver
  5. “I got over to the side of the road as far as I could, into the grass and the weeds, but my father steered the car over that way, too.” The Undesirable, David Huddle

Write an opening sentence. It can be a part of dialogue, a narrative, a description of person or place; it can be first person or third.
* * *
Exercise 4— 10 in 10

Again, using something you’ve written, count the facts in your first paragraph.

Work on these fundamentals and you're well on the way to your first story.

Next Week

Dale Andrews returns!

1 comment:

Dale Andrews said...

When James Lincoln Warren started Criminal Briefs I think what he may have had in mind were columns like the last three written by Susan -- true treasures on how to write short stories.

And boy, did a three week break work out well for me. The first week I was in Tortola at my brother's wedding. The second week I was in Denver teaching my annual course at the University of Denver on the history of transportation regulation in the U.S. The third week I was in Nags Head at a reunion of my wife's family.

Don't know yet what I will have next Tuesday, but see you then!