Monday, October 03, 2005

Open with a bang?

We've all been told that you've got start your piece in the middle of the action in order to hook your reader and get him or her interested in your story. Kate Wilhem has a somewhat different perspective on this philopsophy. She points out that if the most powerful scene in your story (and she's referring to short stories here) is the opening scene, then the only place the story can go from there is downward. She contends that doesn't make for an interesting story. Instead, she recommends that you answer the first two "W" questions of good journalism (Who? and Where?) in the opening scene. Introduce your characters to the reader and get the reader grounded in time and space. Often Damon and Kate would make margin notes on Clarion student pieces that read "Who is this?" and "Why should I care?" or, in Damon's case, the much colder, "So what?" I have certainly heard editors who recommend establishing the rules and the setting very early in the story, so this gels with what they are saying.

On the other hand, the fact remains that you do need to get your reader's attention right from the very start. The craft then becomes to not just find a whiz-bang opening, but instead to find a strong opening that also introduces your reader to the world. Short stories, Kate says (and I agree), are the most demanding and unforgiving form of fiction. A novel gives you plenty of room to develop your characters and setting and tell a good story. In a short story, everything has to be honed to razor sharpness, with absolute precision. There's no room for even a single wasted paragraph, and that makes writing good prose much more difficult. Other than the length, according to Kate, the novel is the easiest form of fiction to write.

I think that's probably true. So, you've got two aproaches you can consider as you learn to write: You can write lots of short stories, which allows you to hone your craft much more quickly through making a lot more mistakes with a fast turn-around, as well as practice writing under the most stringent conditions possible, or you can write a novel, which is probably easier for a novice to do, but not for a novice to do well. The other consideration, of course, is that there is much more money and fame (better to see your name on a bookshelf than in the pages of a magazine) to be made in writing novels than in writing short stories, so even if you go the short story route, if you want to write novels, you'll have to decide when to end your "apprenticeship" in short story. Since you'll never stop learning, that can mean putting off a novel for a long time. It's a tough call. Plenty of successful novelists have never written a short story. But most also mastered their craft through years of writing failed novels. A few are natural talents, but they are the exception and not the rule. You might get where you want to be faster by writing short stories for a while, but there's certainly an argument for writing what you enjoy! For myself, I think I can still do both. Writing short stories can be a good break from writing in the longer form, and it's good to be able to get coherent feedback from critique groups on completed work, rather than works in progress.

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