Saturday, September 19, 2009

First things last

I have written only two stories from beginning to end -- and one of those doesn't count. The one that counts is "What I Remember Most" (there's a link to it in one of my earlier columns), which began a stream of consciousness free write and ended when I went back and put in punctuation and paragraph breaks. The one that doesn't count … I'll get back to in a moment.

Many, many years ago there was an annual weekend event at the local university called "writers' roundtable." There would be too many workshops in too few days (with the ones I was most interested in scheduled for the same time) featuring published writers from various parts of the country and editors and agents from New York. Heady times for would-be writers such as myself. (UNCW now has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program all its own. As I wrote in my own Livejournal in January, this is not the boon I’d hoped it would be.)

Perhaps the most useful thing I learned in I don't remember how many Writers' Roundtables was from an editor whose name I do not now recall. He asked a packed room full of us unpublished types what we thought a reader owed us as writers. There were several answers along the lines of "a fair chance" or "willing suspension of disbelief" or even X number of pages to decide whether or not they liked the story. I knew a trick question when I heard it and kept my mouth shut. Good thing, too. Because after encouraging us to keep guessing for a few minutes and nodding at every answer he announced: "If you think the readier owes you anything, you're an idiot. You asked the reader to plunk down ten or fifteen or forty dollars for your novel. You owe him a story that's worth that kind of money." Ouch.

Okay. Thinking of it that way, that you are asking the reader to invest some hard-earned not-so-disposable income in your story, how do you go about convincing her it's a wise decision? Turn the process around. How do you decide on buying a book you know nothing about? No idea how you do it, but I read a few pages -- sometimes just the first page -- to get a feel for what the writer is about. What kind of story she's telling and how she goes about telling it. Your first page – your first sentence – is what a reader who's never heard of you will consider when deciding

That's for your novel, published and on the shelf in an eye-catching display, with a killer cover, intriguing jacket blrub and author photo you swear is not retouched. How did it get published? An editor bought your manuscript. And why did she buy your manuscript? Because she’d read it. And why did she read it? (You see the pattern here? Subtle I ain't.)

All editors describe essentially the same process. With a small press the editor will sometimes open the manuscript herself, but usually an intern does that. The intern also skims through the first few pages to be sure the ms is not in crayon or pornographic or a word-for-word copy of Valley of the Dolls. He then moves the cover letter to the back of the ms (nobody reads those unless they've already decided they want to talk to you), slips it back in its packaging and adds it to the to-be-read pile next to the editor's desk. When the pile is heavy enough to cause the floor to sag significantly, the editor takes a break from shepherding manuscripts already purchased through the long and tortuous path to novelhood and reads a few hundred denizens of the slush pile.
How does she read hundreds at once? you might ask.

Details of technique vary with individuals, of course, but the method of reading short stories described by Hugo Award-winning editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch is representative of the process:
"I pull the manuscript out of the envelope far enough to read the first paragraph. If it's fantastic, I pull the ms all the way out of the envelope and read the first page. If that keeps my attention, I'll keep reading. But only until I lose interest -- if the writer bores me or is not up to writing the story he's trying to tell."
Those stories -- the great majority of stories -- get a form rejection. The ones that hold her interest though that first reading go into a second-read pile for later and more careful consideration.

So. Both the editor who buys your ms and the reader who buys your novel base their decisions on the opening paragraph. Words you wrote -- if you wrote your story from beginning to end -- before you understood your story; its voice, its cadence, how it worked and what it was about. The opening of your novel is a sales pitch to potential buyers and a hook that draws readers into your world. It should be crafted both to entice and to accurately foretell the sort of adventure the reader is in for. (If you write a terrific hook that has little to do with the climax of the story, the reader will feel cheated. You lured her in under false pretenses.) The only way to write an opening that leads flawlessly to the conclusion is to write it after you've ended the story.

Your first words to the reader should be the most focused, the most seasoned, the most compelling. Write them last.

(Oh, and the story I wrote from the beginning that doesn't count? A few years ago I wrote a gritty noir detective story -- a hardboiled gumshoe teaming with some unlikely allies against a common foe. I wrote it tough and mean and dismal. I had the story finished but was having trouble with the opening -- the protagonist coming awake after being knocked out. I was away from the keyboard, working with my hands while my mind was casting about for some way to convey the experience, when the line popped into my head: "I woke up with a mouthful of used armpits." Suddenly the story was transformed in my mind from dark and dismal to dark and over the top. I went back to my computer, getting sawdust all over the keyboard, and rewrote the story from the ground up in a new voice and with a new spin springing from that opening line. The plot, the events, remained unchanged, but the story was completely different. So I both did and did not write "The Monkey Puzzle Box" from beginning to end.)


Liane Spicer said...

Guess I learned this by trial and error. Rewriting - or tweaking, rather - the start of both of the novels I've completed was one of the very last things I did before submitting.

And that armpit line of yours? Indelible. Ack.

Shauna Roberts said...

With novels, I go back after I've done several revisions and rework the beginning. Doing what you suggest is particularly important for writers like me who don't start with characters because my characters continue developing into the revisions.

With short stories, sometimes I can get by with tinkering rather than rewriting.