Michael Kimball Guest Lecture Series (1): Openings
I’m doing a talk-thing at a free writing conference and the talk is going to be called something like “The One-Hour Crash Course in Fiction Writing.” I’m going to try to cover ways to think about beginnings, language, syntax, details, voice, character, plot, story, revising, endings, etc. I had the idea because it has always been little bits of advice, something that I could hold in my head — whether from a teacher, from something I read, or from another writer — that were the most useful thing to me as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do as a writer. So this will be the first in a series of guest posts about some of the elements of fiction. The posts will include the ways that I think about different elements of fiction, the ways other writers and teachers do, and, hopefully, it will lead to a larger discussion – how you think about it, other ideas from other writers and teachers, etc. OK, here we go:
Openings, there are lots of ways to think about them. Chris Offut said, “The secret is to start a story near the ending.” Elmore Leonard said, “Never open a book with weather.” One of my old teachers used to talk about the importance of the first sentence, the need to overcome of the inertia of nothingness, to immediately capture the reader’s attention. She amended that to say that the first sentence needed to be declarative in some sense, to have a particular syntax and diction, to have resonant acoustical properties. Those first sentences that immediately come to mind, many of those are first sentences that do that. And there are lots of examples, below, from people who are thinking about first sentences.
This next method, I have always thought of it as the opposite of the first sentence method. I know other writers and teachers that suggest outlining the story and/or plot and then annotating the outline as much as possible before going back and creating scenes, filling in with dialogue and detail, etc. I tried this once and was bored before I ever finished the outline, but I’m mentioning it because I know it works for some writers, especially writers who get lost or stuck as they draft early material, and also for writers who need to feel comfortable with knowing the story and the characters before they render it (rather than finding out along the way).
Somewhere in between those two methods is a writer like Andrew Porter who writes “pages upon pages of raw content about the characters before going back and devising plot and structure.” I’m kind of fascinated by that method. It makes me think of how I steal pieces of people’s lives for my own fictional uses, but I suppose that’s another post.
Here are what a bunch of other writers have said or written about beginnings. Dawn Raffel: “I almost always start with a compelling visual image, something that’s emotionally charged for me in ways I can’t fully get my mind around. Then I have to try to find a way to translate that image to a sentence with an acoustical presence on the page. Writing becomes a means of investigation.”
J.D. Salinger: “If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it.”
Noy Holland: “I always thought I started with a sentence, or a sound, a mis-statement or a mishearing–as if such a thing arrives out of the blue. I still believe this, sort of. I have a little story in which a boy cannot say his l’s. Those l’s, the y’s that replace the l’s, are the animating oddity of the story. But grief or pity or love—some emotional state– precedes the sound, the sentence, or at least arrives at the same time. Emotional porousness, susceptibility—I think that’s what makes me listen and wish to speak.”
Gary Lutz: “What often happens is that a word will force itself into my mind and lodge itself there for a week or longer, and I won’t be able to shake it out. It is usually a common word, nothing fancy or obscure, most likely just something I fixated on while idling my way through a newspaper, but it’s as if I had never before beheld its singular weirdness as typographical matter. I’ll probably write it down, and a day later it might be joined by another word, another specimen of humdrum, workaday English, and these two words will start to pal around in my head and maybe decide that they’re together for the long haul. Then I will set them out on a line on the screen of my computer, and I’ll insert other words between them and see how well they can handle being separated and how politely they treat the interlopers. A usable phrase, and sometimes even a sentence, might result from that sort of instigation and manipulation. I never start with an idea-I am not a person who has ideas about anything-and I almost never start with even a glimmer of a situation or a plot.”
Lewis Buzbee: “You shouldn’t write a novel unless you have an idea for one.”
Sam Lipsyte: “The actual writing always starts with what some would call a lingual event, a word, or more likely a combination of words that sends me off. But I also think that moment is really a sort of uncorking of whatever has been welling up in me for a while. So I’m sure it begins with a feeling. I’m walking around with a feeling. A feeling in search of a song, maybe. But without the lingual event it will just stay buzzing in me, useless. Story really comes later. I never sit down and say, Boy, do I have an important story to tell about alienation and oppression in late capitalist society or something like that. I figure that shit forces itself in anyway, and if you keep writing some kind of story has to emerge. It can’t not emerge. And it’s probably the story you should be telling. It might not be a classical narrative, but we maybe have enough of those, anyway. Characters come to me as voices, different modes of speech. Who they are comes from there. I’m not really sure what plot is. Somebody told me once but I forgot.”
I’m like Sam in some ways. I’m always looking for a voice, particular way of speaking, a narrator who says particular words in particular way, a narrator who maybe has a skewed way of perceiving the world. I can have an idea, but it never gets very far unless I have a voice to narrate the idea. With The Way the Family Got Away, it wasn’t until I switched the voice of the narrator from an older man, a grandfather, to that of a little boy and a little girl that the story began to really get told. With Dear Everybody, I started with just a few letters, but there was a distinct, skewed voice there and the rest of the novel came out of that.
So tell me, how do you think about openings?