Tag Archive | writing craft

Charles Baxter@Grinnell

The same day I drove back to Iowa after the Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention, I went to a Writers@Grinnell event with Charles Baxter, another Minnesotan author who went to Macalester back in the day. It was billed as a roundtable, like with Danez Smith, but it actually turned out to be a craft lecture, a talk genre apparently well known to MFA students, but not to me.

The topic of the lecture was the request moment, which I guess is what it sounds like: a moment in a story when someone asks a character to do something. It makes sense to me that such a moment could be revealing. There’s the content of the request, the requestee’s reaction and response, what it means that the requester feels able/entitled/obliged to make the request, the meaning attached to the response (proof of loyalty, affection, etc.), and so on. Baxter said people often talk about the importance of what characters want, but he’s also interested in transferred desire, that is, when characters do things because other characters want them to.

Some memorable quotes from the lecture:

  • “I can’t go back to being the person I was–that’s what it means to be undone.” I believe this was just in reference to the power of stories to undo us.
  • “Don’t ever ask anybody how much that person loves you”–he pronounced this a terrible idea.
  • “Literature often doesn’t work through simple desires and fears because life doesn’t.”
  • “Often aftermaths are more interesting than violence that precedes them.” This was related to Alice Munro’s short story “Child’s Play.”

The part of the lecture that made the biggest impression on me, though, was a startling coincidence. Baxter incorporated musical examples into his talk. The first was Ralph Vaughn Williams’s orchestral setting of Poem 32 from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The second, he said, was a traditional ballad that exemplified how a request moment can also be a prohibition (i.e. don’t do this). He said it was called “The Silver Dagger” and asked if anyone knew it. I half raised my hand, but I think he saw me, because he said, “One person.” Maybe somebody else raised their hand too? I knew exactly why it exemplified a prohibition because it begins, “Don’t sing love songs.” Baxter proceeded to recite the entire text, which I knew, and then he played us a recording of the song. But the weirdest part is that a few hours earlier, I’d sung “The Silver Dagger” while driving on an Iowa highway, and it’s not a song I sing that often these days. I’ve talked about liking Solas’s version before, which is different from the version he played us. That was the one I was singing earlier that day.

Thinking On The Page

I recently came across Theresa MacPhail’s article “The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation” (thanks to someone else posting it, but now I’ve forgotten who–sorry!). It’s obviously relevant to me as a graduate student, and will be even more so in a few years. However, what struck me most was that, with a few exceptions, if you replaced the word “dissertation” with “novel” throughout, you would have a great article on how to write a book. Not surprisingly, a lot of the same advice applies: the only way to finish is to write, write every day, accept that you will have good and bad writing days, reconcile yourself to producing a terrible first draft.

One of MacPhail’s ideas in particular lingered with me. It was this: “Writing is thinking.” More precisely, “the best ideas almost always come about through the act of writing itself.” Now, I think there’s more than one way in which this can be true. I believe MacPhail is talking about the actual drafting of the dissertation since she mentions that you should have the necessary research done before beginning a writing session. I would draw a distinction between a brainstorming type of thinking through writing and a drafting type.

The former is freer and more haphazard; it’s batting around ideas for a term paper or free writing about a character’s background in hopes of figuring out exactly what role she should play in the plot. For me, it’s also deliberate: I need to come up with a paper topic or solve a plot problem, so I set myself the task of writing down all the possibilities until something feels right.

The latter (the drafting type) is more controlled, or at least the writing part is (I’m not sure my thinking is ever controlled). I’m in the midst of actually writing the paper or the novel. I’m using complete sentences and ostensibly producing material intended for a professor or a reader’s eyes. At the same time, it’s also more spontaneous because I’m not actively trying to think on paper. I’m actually trying to write a real draft. But maybe I reach a certain point in my analysis and suddenly notice an implication I hadn’t thought of before and quickly discuss it in a few sentences before the idea slips away. Voilà: my paper makes a point I hadn’t originally planned on making. Or maybe I’m writing a conversation between two characters and a plot hole occurs to me, so I have one character say to the other, “Wait, how can X do Y?” And either the other character replies with an ingenious solution that just popped into my head, or it’s a reminder to me when I go back and reread to fix this problem.

The “writing is thinking” slogan rang especially true for me because I’m currently writing the first draft of a novel and I realized I absolutely am thinking on the page. It’s making for a long, meandering rough draft, but that’s what always happens to me. I refuse to do anything but move forward, so my thinking remains in the draft until I embark on a revision. Thus, for instance, I have a character telling another, “You’re probably going to have to skip school to get into the government archive because it’s only open during business hours,” and then a few lines later saying, “Oh, wait, actually historians can make appointments, so we’ll get ourselves a weekend appointment instead.” That was just me changing my mind about logistics in mid-scene.

Elsewhere, I have characters expressing their feelings at great and unnecessary length, just so I can explore the subtleties of their emotions for myself. Ultimately, I’ll distill their ridiculous monologues into a sentence or two that conveys exactly what I need it to. Also, there are places where characters remark to each other that something doesn’t make sense or seems implausible. These are really thinly disguised messages to myself about the state of the plot. Thinking on the page helps me get through the first draft and lays the groundwork for the first revision, but in the end, once all that thinking has gone into shaping the final manuscript, the thinking itself should be gone from the novel.

Sparkers Through the Ages: First Sentences

After mulling over the first sentences of all the novels in my apartment, I thought it might be fun to look back on how the first sentence of Sparkers had changed over the many drafts it went through (roughly eighteen over eight years, though it’s hard to say exactly). The answer, as it turns out, is not terribly much. The book has always started in about the same place (not counting the prologue, which I’ll get to). The opening sentence tended to stay the same through a bunch of successive drafts until some new revision prompted me to change it. Without further ado, here is the evolution of the first sentence of Sparkers:

First draft ever:

I poke my head into the office without knocking.

So, actually, back in the early days every chapter of the manuscript started with a brief dream Marah had had the night before, but we’re just going to pretend those never existed, okay?

Next three drafts:

I poke my head into the study without knocking.

Office is exchanged for study. Nothing much to see here. This is the first sentence of the manuscript I had when I started querying agents.

First revision for an agent:

In the morning, I escape the apartment to go to the Ikhad.

I think this is an improvement. There’s a greater sense of context, and we get a hint of the narrator’s attitude toward her surroundings. Maybe home is not her favorite place to be. The Ikhad, by the way, is a covered market that I think was inspired by one I saw once in the Dordogne.

A couple drafts later:

I escape the apartment in the morning.

Snappier, maybe? This is the first sentence of the manuscript for which I was offered representation. It lasted through three or so subsequent drafts.

Enter Prologue:

At this point, my agent suggested adding a prologue to the book. I was surprised since writers are so often told that agents (among others) hate prologues and that a story should start where the story starts. But I took the suggestion, and Sparkers joined the confrerie of fantasy novels that begin with prologues. So here is the first sentence of the whole book, as well as the first sentence of the first chapter.

Prologue: The first time I went to the Ikhad by myself, I was eight years old, and my father had just died.

This sentence actually never changed; it’ll be the opening of the published book.

Chapter 1: On a brisk morning in late autumn, I leave our fourth floor apartment on the Street of Winter Gusts and hasten through the quiet streets of our Horiel District neighborhood.  

This is still the same moment described in earlier drafts, but as you can see, the sentence has gotten way longer and more detailed. Proper names and adjectives everywhere!

Next draft:

Chapter 1: On a brisk morning in late autumn, I leave our fourth floor apartment on the Street of Winter Gusts.  

Evidently I decided I’d gone overboard in the last draft and chose to put in a period earlier this time.

Two drafts later:

Chapter 1: On a brisk morning in late autumn, I leave our fourth floor apartment on the Street of Winter Gusts and head for the Ikhad. 

The Ikhad is back! Just so you know where she’s going and all.

Final version:

Chapter 1: On a brisk morning in late autumn, I finish a shift at Tsipporah’s book stall and start across the bustling Ikhad. 

In this revision, I’ve shifted the moment when the book begins forward in time. Now instead of leaving for the Ikhad from home, Marah is already at the market. There is also another character mentioned, but she was introduced in the prologue. The first sentence of which, recall, is still the same as above!

9 First Sentences

Despite being in grad school, I’m still reading books at a fairly brisk pace these days (not as brisk as last year when I wasn’t in school, but brisker than when I was in college). Lately, I’ve been more excited than usual each time I get to start a new book (maybe because I think things like If I finish making a handout summarizing this infant language acquisition study tonight, I can start that book I borrowed from the library two weeks ago!), and so I’ve been especially struck by how delicious a well-crafted opening sentence is. I decided to take a closer look at some first sentences by rounding up all the books in my apartment (excluding ones like Phonetic Data Analysis and Everyday Thai Cooking), collecting their first sentences, and deconstructing them. Much has already been said about the importance of a fantastic opening line, but rather than abstractly pondering the ingredients of a good first sentence or musing about whether the perfect first sentence is actually necessary, I just wanted to wax lyrical about some examples. Without further ado, here are the opening lines of the books I currently have around:

“The night breathed through the apartment like a dark animal.” Reckless Cornelia Funke Trans. Oliver Latsch

I really like this. The personification (zoomorphism, technically?) makes the night seem alive and sentient, which heightens the sense of dread and foreboding that nighttime already evokes. The idea of the night breathing like an animal gives it a creepy, lurking presence. The “dark” might be redundant since night is, well, dark, but it contributes all its connotations of fear, evil, and danger. There’s also something claustrophobic about the sentence as a whole. This opening line immediately thrusts you into this shadowy apartment where the night might be stalking you, or at least watching you.

“He still wasn’t back.” Fearless Cornelia Funke Trans. Oliver Latsch

The opening line of this companion to Reckless is less compelling to me than the preceding example, but it still raises questions, which is one of the best things for a first sentence to do. You want to know who “he” is, and who is waiting for him. The “still” implies that whoever is waiting has been waiting for a long time. There’s a sense that something might have gone wrong, which creates tension and makes you feel the character’s worry.

“I remember being born.” Seraphina Rachel Hartman

Like the previous one, this sentence immediately raises questions: What kind of person remembers their own birth? It’s powerful in its unexpectedness and its brevity. The book opens at the most fundamental of beginnings, suggesting the start of a bildungsroman or an epic, but it does so in a unique way since the narrator is professing awareness of the experience of her birth. Moreover, there’s something special about the way it’s put: “being born.” Not “the day I was born” or “when I was born” or “my birth” but “being born.” It’s punchy, its progressive aspect sounds unusual, and it emphasizes the actual moment of entry into the world.

“I don’t feel the presence of God here.” Charm & Strange Stephanie Kuehn

This is the only first sentence from a book I haven’t actually read yet, so these are the only impressions that won’t be colored by my knowledge of all that comes after the opening line. I like this first line. I want to know where “here” is. Like in Seraphina, the first person POV is established immediately, only this beginning is grounded in a specific moment and place. Right away, I’m “there” with the narrator even though I don’t yet know where “there” is. The pronouncement in this first sentence is bleak and speaks of barrenness, isolation, despair, perhaps hiddenness. Also, mention of “the presence of God” lends this line a sense of the cosmic or the spiritual that makes it rather grand.

“You think it’s so easy to change yourself.” This Song Will Save Your Life Leila Sales

This opening really deserves to have its second sentence included too: “You think it’s so easy, but it’s not.” This first sentence is attention-getting in the way it directly addresses the reader. The narrator is challenging what she assumes is a widely held belief and promises a story that proves why this belief is wrong. The tone can be interpreted as bitter, defiant, resigned, or world-weary, but it’s the bluntness of these statements that really draws me in. Why is the narrator so sure of these things?

“It’s Sunday afternoon, and the phonograph player is jumping like a clown in a parade the way Jolene and I are dancing.” Flygirl Sherri L. Smith

This opening sentence feels more ordinary to me. It sets the scene and the mood and introduces a couple of characters. The mention of the phonograph player is very effective in revealing the time period, and the slightly odd turn of phrase from the simile to “the way Jolene and I are dancing” gives the narrator a distinctive voice, but otherwise there’s nothing too striking or unexpected here. However, when you consider the fact that this first sentence comes right after the section title December 1941, it takes on a new meaning. The section title creates dramatic irony because the reader knows what happened in the U.S. in December of 1941, but the carefree girls dancing at the beginning of the book don’t.

“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.” The Raven Boys Maggie Stiefvater

This is a masterful example of opening with a sentence so specific and unusual the reader has to know more. First off, knowing that one is supposed to kill one’s true love sounds just a bit troubling, not to mention dramatic. Secondly, the fact that this character can no longer remember how many times she’s been told this means it’s become ordinary to her. What must it be like to be accustomed to people telling you you’re going to kill your true love? Who is this character surrounded by? Who are the people telling her this? And how do they know? Thirdly, I have a weakness for first sentences that include an unusual character name in full. Blue Sargent qualifies. In short, I love this first sentence. Bonus points for invoking the classic themes of death and true love with a twist.

“A secret is a strange thing.” The Dream Thieves Maggie Stiefvater

This first sentence is very different from that of The Raven Boys. It’s gone to the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of specificity. This is a generalization, though the fact that it’s about secrets, which are inherently mysterious and compelling, still makes it intriguing. This opening line is like This Song Will Save Your Life‘s in the way it makes an observation about life, detached from any details of setting or character. This sort of first sentence works when the observation is striking enough to make the reader want to know more. Generalizations can also be good for raising questions. What is strange about a secret?

“I just got back from Celia Forester’s funeral.” Rose Under Fire Elizabeth Wein

Speaking of raising questions, this is another first sentence that does just that! Who is Celia Forester? How did she die? And what was the narrator’s relationship to her? We actually do know a little more because this opening sentences comes after the heading “Notes for an Accident Report,” and we can tell by the date and place at the top of the page that this is a journal entry. But I still want to know more. The sentence has a certain heaviness, due to its subject matter. I have the impression that the writer is sad and weary and needs to unburden herself (she certainly gets straight to the point), and I want to know what burdens she’s carrying.

So there they are, the first sentences of all nine novels in my apartment! Maybe next I’ll trace the evolution of the first sentence of Sparkers through its many drafts… Actually, though, in a departure from my regular schedule, I’ll be back tomorrow with something a little bit different. Until then!