Opening Lines

Like God Himself[1], a strong opening line foretells the end of the story, though we may not see it at the time.  This is in addition to the standard requirements that the opening paragraph needs to introduce a character in conflict, and my personal requirement that an SF opening should give some indication of the speculative context of the story.  For novel-length fiction, I think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the gold standard[2]:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In twenty-three words, Austen establishes the primary concern of her novel:  marriage and the assumptions that people make concerning it.  I have often heard women talk about the limited choices a woman was given in the period in which Austen wrote, and as a male reader I am immediately drawn to the way she demonstrates an equivalent way her society was manipulating men.  Since this is a novel-length work, Austen is able to focus on theme rather than conflict in her opening sentence.  For short fiction, one must necessarily move more rapidly, as in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber:

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

Here I find an off-screen event has left the main characters in conflict between what they know has happened (Macomber is a coward) and what they are willing to admit.  This mirrors the ending, where we are left with a different conflict regarding Macomber’s death and the accident the remaining characters are willing to admit.

For my personal story, I think I must instead reach back to a story I like less, but which has no less of a great opening line, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…”

The Worst of Times

Thanks to some unexpected health issues, I find myself limited in stamina, and have had to exert myself to meet my minimum weekly obligations here and on Critters.  I have in fact written very little in the past month, and have finished nothing.  And while I hold high hopes for my friends in NaNoWriMo this year, I am not even going to attempt it myself.

This persistent state of exhaustion has led me to delay the second part of The Hard Work of Sex Equality in Fiction, which I had planned to post as soon as I finished one of my stories-in-progress with a female protagonist.  I have tried multiple times, but find myself unable to sustain the energy level needed to hear their voices and write their words. Until I can actually do this, I cannot possibly tell you what I learned while doing it, so you’re going to have to wait.  Fear not, however, you are not forgotten.

The Best of Times

Enter the greatest opening line which I, in my humble-yet-accurate opinion, have ever penned:

Fifteen meters is a long way to fall, even in Martian gravity.

I  have lamented in the past the difficulties I have had selling The Clouds of Mount Olympus, from which this quote is taken.  A big piece of my sadness is this opening line, which introduces risk (conflict) and setting without beating you over the head with either.  Most of the time I find myself needing complex or compound sentences to establish conflict and context right away.

Clouds was first rejected in 2011, but I kept plugging away, leveraging Duotrope to find new venues who had not yet considered this story.  Ten days before my heart attack, I applied Andrea’s Rule to this piece and sent it out to Goldfish Grimm’s Spicy Fiction Sushi.  And it sold.

The Clouds of Mount Olympus is scheduled for inclusion in the November issue.  They let you read things from their site for free, but if you like what you see you should really send them some money to keep them in business. They take all major credit cards and Paypal.

… And it Gets Better

This past weekend, I received an email from an assistant editor of Asimov’s, telling me that she would like to purchase “IT Came From Outer Space.”  I shouted to my wife so loudly she thought I was having another heart attack.  Yes, it’s only a short poem, and Asimov’s is known more as a publisher of short fiction than poetry, but it’s also a major market for SF[3].  That’s pretty much guaranteed to get any novitiate writer’s heart rate elevated.

Do these first few lines foreshadow a great story?  I can’t say until we get to the end, and I’m hoping that’s still a long way off.

[1] Isaiah 46:9b-10a:  “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done,…”
[2] Unusual comma use aside, I still love this sentence.  And I am well aware that fiction of the day could open in a more leisurely manner than modern stories, which is why I’m not concerned that the opening scene focuses on Mr. Bennet and his wife rather than the protagonist (Elizabeth), and the absence of Mr. Darcy until much later in the story
[3]Sadly, even major markets aren’t included on the magazine aisle of my local grocery store or pharmacy any more, but I did find it at my local Barnes and Noble. There is also an electronic edition, and subscribers get their copies up front.


Things Left Unsaid

In a recent post, Alexia G. Leeds brought up the question of writing style, specifically as it applies to the person(s) we are thinking about as our target audience.  Like Leeds, I struggle to find a balance between writing for myself and writing the kind of thing my spouse prefers.  In my case, however, this separation is a wider chasm (my wife generally dislikes speculative fiction), so it’s an easier decision for me: I write what I like, and am pleasantly surprised when she enjoys something I’ve written.

This particular decision meshes well with the seventh of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips on how to write a short story:

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Reading these tips, I think Vonnegut was intentionally vague about who that “one person” had to be. Usually, I think it’s going to be the author, but I don’t think that’s essential. I could write for my wife, or to please an editor, or even focused on God Himself, and it would still work, as long as I’m willing to set aside my own desires while I write. Mostly, however, I find I’m more effective if I write what works for me, and then make allowances for the outside market during the editing process[1].

EH 7018PThough I have an decades of experience working at Vonnegut’s old stomping ground, I find myself more drawn to the works of Hemingway than Vonnegut, and I think Hemingway may be a good model to follow for my writing[2]. Specifically, I like his lean, understated prose. Hemingway always shows his conflicts instead of telling them, and while his characters’ motivations are clear, they remain mostly unwritten.

One of the best examples of this practice is The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.  Macomber’s wife despises her husband, and at the end, when Macomber finally overcomes his cowardice, she knows her hold on him is over.  Hemingway never says for certain whether the wife’s final action is intentional, and we are left to reason from the way the guide Wilson denies it that he knows there was no accident.  It was the words he never used that said the most.

I have heard from other writers that they tend to write huge volumes of text, then pare it down to expose the real story. I myself find, however, that my most recent stories have actually grown in length after being critiqued, because I found that some things left unsaid were not sufficiently clear.  All the same, this style of indirect prose — characters who say things to manipulate others, instead of what they really mean — feels more real to me, and seems to hold the tension in a scene better.

What happens in your writing process?

[1]Given my historical lack of sales, perhaps this method is not the right one.
[2]Assuming you ignore his alcoholism and suicidal tendencies.