Hatrack River
 
Hatrack.com   The Internet  
Home   |   About Orson Scott Card   |   News & Reviews   |   OSC Library   |   Forums   |   Contact   |   Links
Research Area   |   Writing Lessons   |   Writers Workshops   |   OSC at SVU   |   Calendar   |   Store
Print this page E-mail this page RSS FeedsRSS Feeds
What's New?
Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Beginnings
October 29, 1998


If you mess up the opening, nothing you do later in the story will fix it. And because mistakes in the opening will reverberate through the rest of the story, when you finally do fix the opening you usually have to throw out and redo everything that you wrote after it. With rare exceptions, you simply have to get the opening right before you can go on.

But what is the "opening"? The first sentence? Having a good first sentence is nice, but it's not the opening. By definition, the first sentence is in the first paragraph, and the first paragraph is free. That is, the first paragraph of a story does not have to be in the same voice or mood or tone as the rest of the work. The first paragraph is important for setting the scene, for giving vital information that allows what follows to make sense. But the real opening is after that first paragraph -- when the story starts in earnest.

It's easier to demonstrate the difference between effective and ineffective openings by looking at examples from drafts of the same story. But what writer is insane enough to put his failures out for public display.

Well, it happens that in working on the next Ender novel (working title: Bean), I had to essay four openings before I got one that worked. Notice I didn't say "the right one." That's because there isn't just one "right" opening, anymore than there's ever just one right sentence or one right word. But after three openings, each closer to being right but still wrong, the fourth opening is finally one that can lead into the novel I mean to write.

So let me tell you just enough about the project that you'll see why the first three openings don't work, and why the fourth one does. Bean is designed to be the true sequel that Ender's Game never had. The existing Ender sequels are really a different kind of novel. Many readers prefer Speaker for the Dead and its sequels, because they appreciate that kind of science fiction. But those who really like the kind of science fiction that Ender's Game represents -- emotionally involving, character-rich, fast-moving, with young characters risking their lives for high stakes -- might appreciate a sequel that takes place during and immediately after the events of Ender's Game, following the life of one of Ender's companions in the Battle School.

The project, therefore, is to create a novel that speaks to the same audience as, and delivers an experience similar to, Ender's Game, but which will be a good novel in its own right even for people who have never read the first volume in the series.

Which brings us to the first opening.


Version 1

Chapter 1

Urchin

Rotterdam was once a bright city in a nation of light.

Then the Netherlands, in its last gracious gesture, gave itself to the International Alliance, believing that other nations would follow suit, that nationhood would fade away and the unity forced on humankind by the brutal invasion by aliens would become universal and permanent. Instead, as the only territory completely under the control of the International Congress, this small nation became the stepchild of politics. Perpetually underfunded and yet forced by law to allow any refugee from any nation in the world to enter and take up residence among the "citizens of the world," the Netherlands had become the most overcrowded, poverty-stricken nation in the world. Gone were the fields of tulips, gone the quiet graciousness of life. Not one person in a hundred spoke Dutch; not one person in ten had a decent job. The understaffed police did their best to keep order. But there was no order to be kept. And of all the cities of the Netherlands -- now the IZ, the International Zone -- Rotterdam was the largest, the most overcrowded, the least orderly. It was the city where hope became desperation.

It was a city of lost children.

They flooded the streets, swarming around people who looked like money, begging or picking pockets right in front of the police. They descended like locusts on the markets, until the merchants hired thugs to beat them away with sticks. The corpses of starved children, of stabbed or beaten children, of children dead of cold, were found daily -- only the body count was listed in the netrags. There were no names to write about. These children had no identity. They had burst into the world like pus from a boil, and if they once had parents who wanted to love or know them, it made no difference now. Somewhere in the world children went to school. Somewhere children played in gardens. But in Rotterdam children burrowed into the dumpsters to eat and then to sleep. In Rotterdam, the strong and cruel and heartless children made sure that the weaker ones never got near the soup kitchens and hostel.

Rotterdam was the darkest city in a nation of shadows.

*

What's wrong with this opening? The main problem is that it's not an opening at all -- it's a prologue. It sets the scene, and I can imagine some novels where scene-setting is vital. For instance, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus required (and has) just such a prologue.

But there is nothing in this prologue that I can't reveal later. In fact, this prologue actually represents nothing more than my thinking out loud. I had just decided, arbitrarily, that the city where Bean is a street urchin would be Rotterdam; and because today's Rotterdam is a pleasant city in a provident nation, I had to think of some reason why it would become a place where street urchins would be desperately struggling for survival. These few paragraphs were the result.

So I'll hang onto them as working notes, but nothing more. They'll never appear in the finished book.

Instead, I realized, what was needed was character -- specifically, Bean himself. I needed to see the city, not through the eyes of some distant narrator, but through the eyes of a child who was living on those streets. So here is the second try:


Version 2

Chapter 1

Urchin

He had no name. Or rather, if he ever had a name, he did not know it. He knew that before he lived on the streets of Rotterdam, he used to live in another place, but in his vague memories of a sterile white-and-metal place with beds and babies and adults moving about, he did not remember any voice calling him anything at all. He used to be there. Now he was here. And here, survival depended on nobody noticing him at all.

He had to live by scavenging. Not stealing -- that was impossible to a child of four. He was too small and weak and slow to get past the guards at the market doors, and in the open markets, anything he managed to steal would be taken from him immediately by an older boy. Instead he had to look for food that was spilled or dropped or thrown away. He became adept at getting sugar or oils off wrapping paper; he was the last scavenger, gnawing at the already-picked-clean bones of the city. He was hungry all the time.

In fact, he was dying, though he didn't understand that. At age four, his growth was so stunted that he looked like a child of three, or even two. He walked on rickety bowed legs; his belly was distended; his arms were so thin that he seemed almost as antlike as the Buggers whose terrifying image loomed over every street and jumped out of every screen and holodisplay. He did not understand that because of his physical condition, he was supposed to be mentally sluggish, withdrawing from life. So he passed his time observing, not only the disposition of every wrapper, every crumb, every splash, but also the people who moved along the street.

Every street urchin knew how to evaluate their targets, the adults who tried to go about their business, ignoring the beggars and evading the thieves. The children who couldn't size up generosity or the ease of theft or the likelihood of careless spillage did not last long.

But he was beyond that fundamental skill. What he watched with most interest now were the other children. Unlike adults, who saw them only as a stampede of oversized jabbering rats, to be stepped over or kicked aside, to him the other children were endlessly fascinating. For on every streetcorner there was a shifting pattern of power. At first, it seemed that the most rough and brutal boy -- for it was almost always a boy -- was the one who ruled. But that turned out to be only partly true. For the other children became adept at avoiding him or hiding things from him, even as they made an outward show of doing whatever he might demand of them. And the obedience lasted only as long as the bully was present.

The real bosses were also bigger and stronger than most children, but they made no great display of their physical force. In fact, when the bully was present, the real boss was often the most obsequious, offering no challenge whatsoever, but deftly turning the bully's wrath away from children who were under the boss's protection. And unlike the bully, the boss made sure that within his little territory, there was some sharing out of resources, some justice, some security.

Some. Not much. For death was always near. The police, when they came through, did not regard the children as human; they lashed out with batons and if a child dropped to the ground and never rose again, there would be no repercussions. And when a new bully moved into a territory, there would have to be a display of power -- several of the protector-bosses died at times like that. Still, this four-year-old nameless observer watched and learned.

It was not abstract scientific curiosity that drove him, however. For at some level, he must have understood that his own slim hope of survival depended on decoding the society of children so that he could find a way to insert himself into it, despite his utter lack of value to anyone, despite the look of death that clung to him. He had no leverage, no coin to spend, no gift to give that would win him the protection of a boss; so he would have to invent something.

That was why he had chosen this garbage can to sit on, and this one particular corner to observe.

*

This is not a prologue. This is definitely the opening of the story I want to tell. Bean, sitting on a garbage can, watching.

But I had misgivings. I realized I didn't trust the material, because I felt impelled to send it to my editor, Beth Meacham, to ask her for her response. And while Beth was kind, she pointed out that sometimes it didn't feel like a child thinking. Too abstract. Especially the paragraph where it says, "It was not abstract scientific curiosity that drove him, however."

As soon as Beth pointed this out, I realized what I had done. (My former writing students will recognize it, too!) That sentence is an egregious violation of point of view. Supposedly I was viewing the city through Bean's eyes. But instead, I got so caught up in the exposition of Bean's past, that I inadvertently slipped into the same distant voice I had used in describing the city in the previous version. If there's one thing that violates point of view, it's telling what the character is not thinking!

Now, the problem is not that I violated some arbitrary rule about point of view. My violation of point of view merely revealed the problem: that I was still not as fully engaged in the character of Bean as the story required.

The voice was hopelessly wrong -- too distant and elevated, too writerly -- and the strategy was also wrong -- too much exposition of the past, nothing to root us in the present moment. What I needed to do, I decided, was create Bean as a human being, to get inside his mind, not just show him from the outside, as if through the wrong end of a telescope. What did it feel like to be living his life?

Which brings us to version 3.


Version 3

Chapter 1

Urchin

The boy was four years old, but he was small for his age, his belly distended with hunger, his limbs emaciated, his joints prominent. He looked like death. But his mind was as alive and alert as ever, his eyes were still bright with intelligence, and he had no intention of becoming one of the bodies scooped up by the Rotterdam street cleaners as they did their rounds every morning.

He perched on a garbage can in the shadow of an alley, where he could watch the people passing on the street. In the street economy, he was at the bottom, living by licking wrappers and dabbing up crumbs from the street with a damp finger. He ate as much fine gravel as food -- the crumbs that didn't dissolve in his mouth were stone -- but he swallowed it all, in case some nutrition clung to it. Real food was always snatched up by larger children, who often fought over it. The struggle could be brutal. A child his size had no chance in the melee.

He remembered a better place, shiny and clean, with adults who spoke to him and fed him. He had learned language there. He played with toys and the adults watched him closely. But he couldn't remember ever being addressed by name. If he had a name, he did not know what it was, and could not remember where that place was. He didn't much care. He couldn't eat a name.

Other children had food. Not a lot of it, but enough that they weren't dying. He knew better than to ask them for it -- there wasn't any to spare. Nor was he stupid enough to try to steal it. Weak as he was, he could not hope to be quick, and they were too alert for stealth to do him any good. Still, they had food, he didn't, and if he watched them carefully enough, he would think of something.

He grasped almost at once that these children, who patrolled the intersection of XXXX and XXXX, were not just individuals who had worked out some allotment of territory, as was common among the beggars and thieves and whores, whether adults or children. The children he was watching were younger and weaker, and instead of dividing up their territory, they were working it cooperatively, scavenging and stealing what they could, then bringing it back to be shared.

The leader of this little beggars' commune was a nine-year-old that the other kids called Poke. Was Poke a boy or a girl? It was impossible to tell, and probably didn't matter. Poke was the arbiter of disputes between the younger children, the distributor of whatever food or other goods were brought in. It was obvious why the others trusted Poke -- the distribution was always fair, and Poke took no larger share than anyone else.

The boy who watched saw more than just this group, however. He also saw how they shied away from the bullies who preyed on little ones. These bullies were only slightly larger -- ten-, eleven-, twelve-year-olds -- and they were not strong enough or bright enough to snatch a living on their own. Instead, they used their size advantage to scavenge from the bottom feeders -- from the smallest children, or from weak or dying adults. It was the bullies, too, who drove the younger, weaker children from the food lines at the charity houses, where nutritious meals were served to those strong enough to fight their way into the line. Adults sometimes policed the lines, of course, but it was futile. A younger child who defied the ban of the bullies and got in under the protection of adults would get his meal; but he had to leave sometime, and the bully, on the theory that the meal the youngling ate belonged to him, would punish mercilessly. If it didn't kill the interloper outright, the beating would weaken him enough that he would die soon enough anyway. Not that it mattered. By the time a young one was desperate enough to defy the ban, he was dying anyway. The stolen meal was a taste of heaven.

The watching boy was not ready for the taste of heaven that led to death. Instead, he was thinking of a way to get past the bullies, to get into the charity soup kitchens, and do it over and over, without punishment. He could not do it alone.

*

I stopped there because I knew something was still wrong. But what?

I did as I always do (and as I had done with the previous two openings): I showed it to my wife, Kristine. She read it. She liked it. But then she said, "Isn't this supposed to be like Ender's Game? Ender's Game began with a scene, with action -- Ender's visit to the doctor where his monitor gets removed and he goes into convulsions."

At once I knew why I hadn't been able to go on. I had been right that the opening needed to concentrate on Bean; but I was wrong to think that it should be from Bean's point of view. Soon enough I would get inside his head and stay there through most (but not all) of the novel. But the first section needed to be from outside him. Why? Because we weren't ready for his thought processes yet. We had to see him in action, and then wonder how this kid's mind worked.

This is an important choice, in part because it violates one of the rules of storytelling -- to establish quickly the viewpoint you intend to use. Whoever you use as your initial viewpoint character will feel very important to the reader -- the character has to amount to something in the story, even if the focus quickly moves away. It's a tricky technique to use, because of the extra expectations that you will now have to fulfil. Knowing that, however, I felt confident that I could start with a different point of view and still move the story to Bean's viewpoint when I needed to. You can break any rule, as long as you're willing and able to pay the price.

I had been right about needing to start from a child's point of view of the life of the street, instead of that distant omniscient narrator. The mistake was only in using Bean for that job. In fact, my clue to myself that I had unconsciously known this all along was the decision not to give him a name until another child of the streets names him. To have an unnamed viewpoint character is almost always a hopelessly bad choice, because you have to keep referring common-noun tags like "the boy," as if he were the only one in the world. The circumlocutions needed to maintain a consistent viewpoint without having a simple nametag on the character become tedious and annoying to the reader. By declining to name Bean, I had been telling myself that he was not the right viewpoint character for the opening.

It took Kristine pointing out the lack of action to make this clear. Inside Bean's viewpoint, I was not free to begin at once with action, because I had to explain what his actions meant to him -- what his intentions were. Using another character's viewpoint, however, I did not have to explain Bean's motive. He could begin as an enigmatic, somewhat dangerous character.

And since I had just created the gender-ambiguous nine-year-old Poke, the obvious thing was to use her point of view. However, she did not exist until I had written the third version. And until she existed, I didn't have the option of using her point of view. So I had to write each version in order to find out enough about the story to be able to write the next. None of this was wasted time, even if the text was fated to be discarded in favor of a new version.

At last, when I finished this fourth version, I had an opening that did the job that it needed to do. The focus by the end is on Bean, but the exposition is relatively painless, and Poke becomes an interesting character (to me at least) in her own right. I think you'll see the obvious improvement.


Version 4

Chapter 1

Urchin

Poke kept her eyes open all the time. The younger children were supposed to be on watch, too, and sometimes they could be quite observant, but they just didn't notice all the things they needed to notice, and that meant that Poke could only depend on herself to see danger.

There was plenty of danger to watch for. The cops, for instance. They didn't show up often, but when they did, they seemed especially bent on clearing the streets of children. They would flail about them with their magnetic whips, landing cruel stinging blows on even the smallest children, haranguing them as vermin, thieves, pestilence, a plague on the fair city of Rotterdam. It was Poke's job to notice when a disturbance in the distance suggested that the cops might be running a sweep. Then she would give the alarm whistle and the little ones would rush to their hiding places till the danger was past.

But the cops didn't come by that often. The real danger was much more immediate -- big kids. Poke, at age nine, was the matriarch of her little crew (not that any of them knew for sure that she was a girl), but that cut no ice with the eleven- and twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys and girls who bullied their way around the streets. The adult-size beggars and thieves and whores of the street paid no attention to the little kids except to kick them out of the way. But the older children, who were among the kicked, turned around and preyed on the younger ones. Any time Poke's crew found something to eat -- especially if they located a dependable source of garbage or an easy mark for a coin or a bit of food -- they had to watch jealously and hide their winnings, for the bullies liked nothing better than to take away whatever scraps of food the little ones might have. Stealing from younger children was much safer than stealing from shops or passersby. And they enjoyed it, Poke could see that. They liked how the little kids cowered and obeyed and whimpered and gave them whatever they demanded.

So when the scrawny little two-year-old took up a perch on a garbage can across the street, Poke, being observant, saw him at once. The kid was on the edge of starvation. No, the kid was starving. Thin arms and legs, joints that looked ridiculously oversized, a distended belly. And if hunger didn't kill him soon, the onset of autumn would, because his clothing was thin and there wasn't much of it even at that.

Normally she wouldn't pay any attention to the walking dead. But this one had eyes. He was still looking around with intelligence. None of that stupor of the walking dead, no longer searching for food or even caring to find a comfortable place to lie while breathing their last taste of the stinking air of Rotterdam. After all, death would not be such a change for them. Everyone knew that Rotterdam was, if not the capital, then the main seaport of Hell. The only difference between Rotterdam and death was that with Rotterdam, the damnation wasn't eternal.

This little boy -- what was he doing? Not looking for food. He wasn't eyeing the pedestrians. Which was just as well -- there was no chance that anyone would leave anything for a child that small. Anything he might get would be taken away by any other child, so why should he bother? If he wanted to survive, he should be following older scavengers and licking food wrappers behind them, getting the last sheen of sugar or dusting of flour clinging to the packaging, whatever the first comer hadn't licked off. There was nothing for this child out here on the street, not unless he got taken in by a crew, and Poke wouldn't have him. He'd be nothing but a drain, and her kids were already having a hard enough time without adding another useless mouth.

He's going to ask, she thought. He's going to whine and beg. But that only works on the rich people. I've got my crew to think of. He's not one of them, so I don't care about him. Even if he is small. He's nothing to me.

A couple of twelve-year-old hookers who didn't usually work this strip rounded a corner, heading toward Poke's base. She gave a low whistle. The kids immediately drifted apart, staying on the street but trying not to look like a crew.

It didn't help. The hookers knew already that Poke was a crew boss, and sure enough, they caught her by the arms and slammed her against a wall and demanded their "permission" fee. Poke knew better than to claim she had nothing to share -- she always tried to keep a reserve in order to placate hungry bullies. These hookers, Poke could see why they were hungry. They didn't look like what the pedophiles wanted, when they came cruising through. They were too gaunt, too old-looking. So until they grew bodies and started attracting the slightly-less-perverted trade, they had to resort to scavenging. It made Poke's blood boil, to have them steal from her and her crew, but it was smarter to pay them off. If they beat her up, she couldn't look out for her crew now, could she? So she took them to one of her stashes and came up with a little bakery bag that still had half a pastry in it.

It was stale, since she'd been holding it for a couple of days for just such an occasion, but the two hookers grabbed it, tore open the bag, and one of them bit off more than half before offering the remainder to her friend. Or rather, her former friend, for of such predatory acts are feuds born. The two of them started fighting, screaming at each other, slapping, raking at each other with clawed hands. Poke watched closely, hoping that they'd drop the remaining fragment of pastry, but no such luck. It went into the mouth of the same girl who had already eaten the first bite -- and it was that first girl who won the fight too, sending the other one running for refuge.

Poke turned around, and there was the little boy right behind her. She nearly tripped over him. Angry as she was at having had to give up food to those street-whores, she gave him a knee and knocked him to the ground. "Don't stand behind people if you don't want to land on your butt," she snarled.

He simply got up and looked at her, expectant, demanding.

"No, you little bastard, you're not getting nothing from me," said Poke. "I'm not taking one bean out of the mouths of my crew, you aren't worth a bean."

Her crew was starting to reassemble, now that the bullies had passed.

"Why you give your food to them?" said the boy. "You need that food."

"Oh, excuse me!" said Poke. She raised her voice, so her crew could hear her. "I guess you ought to be the crew boss here, is that it? You being so big, you got no trouble keeping the food."

"Not me," said the boy. "I'm not worth a bean, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember. Maybe you ought to remember and shut up."

Her crew laughed.

But the little boy didn't. "You got to get your own bully," he said.

"I don't get bullies, I get rid of them," Poke answered. She didn't like the way he kept talking, standing up to her. In a minute she was going to have to hurt him.

"You give food to bullies every day. Give that to one bully and get him to keep the others away from you."

"You think I never thought of that, stupid?" she said. "Only once he's bought, how I keep him? He won't fight for us."

"If he won't, then kill him," said the boy.

That made Poke mad, the stupid impossibility of it, the power of the idea that she knew she could never lay hands on. She gave him a knee again, and this time kicked him when he went down. "Maybe I start by killing you."

"I'm not worth a bean, remember?" said the boy. "You kill one bully, get another to fight for you, he want your food, he scared of you too."

She didn't know what to say to such a preposterous idea.

"They eating you up," said the boy. "Eating you up. So you got to kill one. Get him down, everybody as small as me. Stones crack any size head."

"You make me sick," she said.

"Cause you didn't think of it," he said.

He was flirting with death, talking to her that way. If she injured him at all, he'd be finished, he must know that.

But then, he had death living with him inside his flimsy little shirt already. Hard to see how it would matter if death came any closer.

Poke looked around at her crew. She couldn't read their faces.

"I don't need no baby telling me to kill what we can't kill."

"Little kid come up behind him, you shove, he fall over," said the boy. "Already got you some big stones, bricks. Hit him in the head. When you see brains you done."

"He no good to me dead," she said. "I want my own bully, he keep us safe, I don't want no dead one."

The boy grinned. "So now you like my idea," he said.

"Can't trust no bully," she answered.

"He watch out for you at the charity kitchen," said the boy. "You get in at the kitchen." He kept looking her in the eye, but he was talking for the others to hear. "He get you all in at the kitchen."

"Little kid get into the kitchen, the big kids, they beat him," said Sergeant. He was eight, and mostly acted like he thought he was Poke's second-in-command, though truth was she didn't have a second.

"You get you a bully, he make them go away."

"How he stop two bullies? Three bullies?" asked Sergeant.

"Like I said," the boy answered. "You push him down, he not so big. You get your rocks. You be ready. Ben't you a soldier? Don't they call you Sergeant?"

"Stop talking to him, Sarge," said Poke. "I don't know why any of us is talking to some two-year-old."

"I'm four," said the boy.

"What your name?" asked Poke.

"Nobody ever said no name for me," he said.

"You mean you so stupid you can't remember your own name?"

"Nobody ever said no name," he said again. Still he looked her in the eye, lying there on the ground, the crew around him.

"Ain't worth a bean," she said.

"Am so," he said.

"Yeah," said Sergeant. "One damn bean."

"So now you got a name," said Poke. "You go back and sit on that garbage can, I think about what you said."

"I need something to eat," said Bean.

"If I get me a bully, if what you said works, then maybe I give you something."

"I need something now," said Bean.

She knew it was true.

She reached into her pocket and took out six peanuts she had been saving. He sat up and took just one from her hand, put it in his mouth and slowly chewed.

"Take them all," she said impatiently.

He held out his little hand. It was weak. He couldn't make a fist. "Can't hold them all," he said. "Don't hold so good."

Damn. She was wasting perfectly good peanuts on a kid who was going to die anyway.

But she was going to try his idea. It was audacious, but it was the first plan she'd ever heard that offered any hope of making things better, of changing something about their miserable life without her having to put on girl clothes and going into business. And since it was his idea, the crew had to see that she treated him fair. That's how you stay crew boss, they always see you be fair.

So she kept holding her hand out while he ate all six peanuts, one at a time.

After he swallowed the last one, he looked her in the eye for another long moment, and then said, "You better be ready to kill him."

"I want him alive."

"Be ready to kill him if he ain't the right one." With that, Bean toddled back across the street to his garbage can and laborious climbed on top again to watch.

"You ain't no four years old!" Sergeant shouted over to him.

"I'm four but I'm just little," he shouted back.

Poke hushed Sergeant up and they went looking for stones and bricks and cinderblocks. If they were going to have a little war, they'd best be armed.

*

Notice how much longer this is. That's because I knew, instinctively, that this was working, this was right. And so the floodgates could open. I could start playing with the language of the street; I could start creating incidental characters. Scenes unfolded. Voices emerged. I only stopped at this point because it was time to put in a blank line and move, at last, to Bean's point of view. For now that he has a name, I'm ready to get inside his head as he watches Poke's attempt to follow his plan.

In fact, the recruitment of a bully to be the protector of this streetcorner crew has now become a powerful, closed story in my mind. Characters from this opening will return, of course; Bean himself will emerge from the opening chapter to go on to Battle School. Notice that "the opening" is not the entirety of the first chapter in this case. It consists mostly of the one extended scene between Bean and Poke; when that scene ends, the opening is over, even though the chapter will go on to achieve its own closure and be a strong story in its own right. (That's why I can't tell you any more of the storyline than this -- because I intend to offer the first chapter as a separate story to one of the sf magazines.)

What matters is that not until I got the opening right did the story start to open up for me. Now, I could have forced my way through using any of these openings, and the result might even have been a pretty good book. But it wasn't coming to life in my own mind. I was coming up against a wall each time -- later, mind you, so I knew I was getting closer, but still there was a wall, my unconscious mind telling me that I couldn't trust this opening, I couldn't hang a story from it.

When it did work, then I could flow on. It "wrote itself" -- that is, I never had to stop and ponder, for ideas just popped into my head the moment my fingers needed to have something to type. For me at least, that's when it's working, that's when I know the story is alive. Of course, you may have a different opinion -- but you aren't the one who has to write the story. I am! So if it comes to life for me, then I can write it. Your story, obviously, has to come to life for you.

If the opening is wrong, there's almost no point in going on until it's right. And to fix an opening, you don't edit it or rewrite the sentences -- what a pointless exercise that would have been! There are probably sentences that could use honing in all these versions. So what? That's what you do during the copy edit. What matters in the opening is the structure: viewpoint, voice, event, cause -- what happens, to whom, why, with what result, and what it means to the characters. Those are the pieces from which stories are constructed. Word choice and sentence structure are trivial matters by comparison. There are hundreds of sentences ranging from adequate to superb that will work well enough, if the story is right; but there is no sentence so exquisitely written that it will make a bad story feel like a good one to the audience. That's what the opening is about -- not finding language, but finding structure and character, causality and judgment.

With any luck, seeing the progression through failed versions to one that works will be helpful to you as you look at your own openings. It should also be encouraging, for those of you who have not yet published anything, that after the dozens of stories I've written, each new project is a fresh start, with a whole new set of mistakes to make, and a whole new set of problems to solve. We're all novices with every story, because each new story is one you've never told before.


E-mail this page
Copyright © 2014 Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.