Openings and Process
It has always been the little bits of advice—whether from a teacher or from another writer—that were the most useful to me as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do as a writer. This is the best advice I have learned concerning different ways to think about openings, process, story and plot, language and sentences, acoustics, syntax and diction, narration and voice, character, dialogue, description and details, figurative language, endings, revision, and punctuation.
There are concepts here that took me years to learn how to use. Syntax and diction have always been somewhat intuitive for me, but it took me years to understand the concept of acoustics. I always had a decent sense of what a good opening is, but it took me a long time to figure out how to turn a good opening into a good story and even longer to figure out how to make that story seem meaningful. Writing fiction is something I have been thinking about and working at for a few decades. What understanding I have has always come in pieces and only with practice.
Here is something to keep in mind: I’m not trying to make an argument for one approach or another (in most cases), though I certainly have preferences. I’m trying to provide a range of ways to think about the various elements of fiction, which exist on a kind of continuum. Different writers emphasize different elements and this is what makes each of us a distinctive writer. The key is to make those choices for yourself, whatever they may be, and to use those choices to create original fiction.
One of my first teachers used to talk about the importance of the first sentence, the need to overcome the inertia of nothingness, to immediately capture the reader’s attention. She amended that to say the first sentence needs 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 them are first sentences that do those things. There is Melville’s great opening to Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” It inaugurates an unmistakable voice. Plus, it has those resonant ls and ms.
Here is the first sentence of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress: “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” It initiates a new world and a great mystery. The syntax at the end of the sentence echoes the syntax at the beginning of the sentence. And there are the acoustical resonances of the es (long and short) and ss and ms.
I love the unsettled beginning to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and its short-u and long-u sounds: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
And Russell Hoban’s opening to Riddley Walker gives us its own particular language: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.”
Those four examples are four different ways to open a piece of fiction, but there are, of course, many ways to think about openings. This bit about openings from Elmore Leonard always makes me laugh: “Never open a book with weather.” It can be helpful to think of openings in terms of what not to do. There are lots of things writing teachers tell their writing students not to write. The list is huge, but here’s a short version: getting drunk, smoking cigarettes, backpacking in Europe, dreams, porn, car chases, car accidents, your band, how much you hate your ex-wife, ex-boyfriend, etc. Of course, there are probably exceptions to each of those (except backpacking in Europe).
I find this advice from Chris Offutt helpful: “The secret is to start a story near the ending.” It’s a nice justification, if the writer wants one, to skip all the exposition and all the set-up that can come at the beginning of a piece of fiction.
Of course, there are lots of writers who don’t privilege the first sentence or worry about the opening so much. There are writers who like to begin with more neutral material, often exposition, and to ratchet up the tension from there by easing the reader into things. And I know other writers and teachers who 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 have tried this method, but often find myself bored before I ever finish the outline. I’m mentioning it, though, 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 the story and the characters before they write (rather than finding out along the way).
Dawn Raffel is a writer who likes to discover the story of the fiction along the way, as she works from sentence to sentence: “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.” I like that an image and a feeling can turn into a piece of fiction if the fiction writer looks at the image hard enough and renders the emotion in some kind of accessible way. I like approaching a piece fiction without knowing, in a full sense, what it is going to be about or what is going to happen next.
Sam Lipsyte also focuses on the way the words sound and feel as he approaches the opening of a piece of fiction: “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.” A writer must learn to recognize this sense of urgency about a fiction and pursue it whenever possible.
That sense of urgency gets us to this quote from “On Writing” by Raymond Carver: “I once sat down to write what turned out to be a pretty good story, though only the first sentence of the story had offered itself to me when I began it. For several days I’d been going around with this sentence in my head: ‘He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang.’ I knew a story was there and that it wanted telling.” What Carver is talking about when he talks about that first sentence is that feeling Raffel refers to as “compelling” and Lipsyte calls a “welling up.” It is a first sentence that describes a situation full of urgency and implication. It is the sense that there is a great deal of story to be unpacked.
It is that elusive feeling I am always looking for when I’m working on the opening to a new piece of fiction. Of course, there is no formula or set of steps that gets me to that feeling. The trick is simply recognizing the feeling when an opening has it.
Here’s a quote from Rachel Carson: “The discipline of the writer is to learn to be still and listen to what his subject has to tell him.” I always read “still” as “sit still,” which makes me think of this quote from Harry Crews: “Sometimes you need to affix your ass to the chair.” Sometimes, sitting down and doing the work can be the most difficult part of being a writer. Sometimes, it is the other parts of life that get in the way. Other times, it is the fiction itself, figuring out what to do with it or what it needs to be any good.
So how does the writer get through the rough parts, the blank parts, the parts we know suck? I agree with Virginia Woolf when she says it is determination: “The creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” That determination gets the fiction writer to intermittent moments where the narrative feels almost as thrilling as it did in the beginning. That persistence allows the narrative to accumulate into some recognizable form, which also allows the fiction writer to believe in (and so to keep pursuing) the fiction.
Of course, there is more to writing fiction than simply sitting down and being determined and believing in the fiction. When I’m writing fiction, I’m trying in a basic way to get from one sentence to the next sentence. Often, I do this by looking at the elements of the previous sentence—its syntax, the words in play, the acoustics of it—and using them for the next sentence.
Getting from sentence to sentence makes me think of this E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I can see ahead to the next sentence, and I know there are more sentences to be written, but I’m only working with what is right in front of me.
Of course, the writing can’t just accumulate. I’m also trying to drive the narrative forward, to create more tension, to create a sense of relentlessness, to find surprises, etc. George Saunders captures this idea in this succinct quote: “The moment when things get complicated, that’s what we try to move towards.”
This kind of writing, sentence-to-sentence, isn’t always easy, but it is manageable for me. If I work too far ahead (without writing good sentences along the way), then I get lost and the fiction loses its energy. Whenever that happens, I wish I were the kind of writer who worked with an outline. In a sense, that process can be more straightforward and this is one of its great benefits if the method works for you. The writer who begins with an outline is creating scenes, filling in dialogue, complicating the plot. There is a kind of clarity there that doesn’t exist for the sentence-to-sentence writer (though, generally, there are also many fewer surprises—for both the reader and the writer).
The point is that each writer needs to figure out what his or her own individual process is. Whatever the process is, it only needs to work for you.
Getting from sentence to sentence is one part of the process for me. At the same time, I’m also trying to be receptive and open to the story. I’m working with the voice of the narrative and I’m trying to let that voice tell me what the story is. Don DeLillo gets at this idea: “I feel that a novel tells you what it wants to be … It’s really the purest sort of impulse—a question of what the novel seems to want.” Joseph Scapellato says it in a funnier and better way: “The story is smarter than you.”
The idea, in a sense, is to not think while getting it down (the thinking, so to speak, comes later). Here’s Blake Butler on that: “If I let myself think too far past the impulse, I find I either will think more things than I can hold … or that I will think too far into the idea before I get the chance to let it come out of me as wanted and then I will overthink it.”
I love that so much effort can go into not thinking and just following the words out onto the page. It makes me think of the Ouija board we played with as kids—trying to let ourselves be receptive to the other world, but knowing the story we were always going to tell would come out regardless. I may be writing sentences without knowing the plot points or what happens next, but I always know a little something about the fiction and I trust the story as it comes out. Being receptive lets me believe in the fiction.