Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: The Light at the Beginning of the Tunnel

EARLIER THIS WEEK, I woke up and wrote this in the notes app on my iPhone:

The years just after the war were especially hard on the general, who wore civilian clothing like a penance.

   That's an opening line. Whether it is to a novel, or a novella, or a short story, I'm not sure, because that is all I have written so far. But I now know a lot more about that story, because I have been thinking about the general ever since I wrote it. 
   First lines are like seeds: they get the story started. And that is why I have that collection in my notes app ... I think of it as the greenhouse, where I start growing things that may eventually be stories.
   I haven't written more about the general yet because I don't like to sit down and really start cranking on a story until I know how it ends. That gives me a destination for what I'm writing, and knowing where I'm going means I throw away less of what I have written, although I still throw away quite a bit. In fact, more often than not, I throw away that first line, because the line that gets me thinking about the story may not be the best one with which to start it. And that's fine; seeds often cease to be, once the plant begins to grow.
   In workshops, a great exercise is to have everyone come up with a great first line, and then exchange them with a neighbor, who expands the first line into a paragraph. And that initial paragraph is almost never what the author of the first line was thinking about, because each person will start grasping and toying with that initial thought in his or her own way.
   Do all of my stories begin this way? No ... they do not. Frequently I will think of an ending first, in which case it is easy to begin writing, because I just follow the story back to a starting point and begin work. But for those days when it is not that cut-and-dried, it is good to know that I have all those seedlings in the greenhouse, waiting to be cultivated into something larger and more complete.

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