Tag Archives: openings
I had the good fortune recently of attending an Orson Scott Card writing class – I highly recommend it if you have the means and he happens to be holding one in a place you can get to. There were a lot of topics he spoke on that helped me think about my writing in a better light, but the issue I’m most compelled to talk about is that of openings, largely because it made the most dramatic impact on how I write. I’ve been a member of Hatrack River Forums (the OSC-sponsored writing forum) and they have a concept of a “First Thirteen.” What they mean by that is the first thirteen lines of your (appropriately formatted) story. The reason they place such emphasis on it is that an editor will often only look at the first page of your manuscript before deciding whether your story belongs in the slush pile or in the pile worthy of further attention. Editors are overworked and underpaid, and your story needs to fight for their attention. Thirteen lines is (approximately) what fits on that first page.
I spent a long time working on the first thirteen for my story to submit to get in to OSC’s Boot Camp. It was what I was going to use as the introduction to Shelter From the Storm. I didn’t need to worry about an editor (since I was my editor) on Shelter, but I did need to worry about getting people to buy it. That opening was still important.
I spent a long time doing everything I could to create the perfect first thirteen; these would be the best-written, most beautiful thirteen lines I had ever written and put at the front of a story. This is what I wrote.
Erica was cold, wet, and tired. Tired was a feeling she didn’t mind; it was only natural. Hiking seventeen miles in a day gave her no way to avoid it, particularly as the trail went up the slope to the plateau ahead. After a while, the gentle tug of fatigue at every step on the grimy, ill-kept path started to feel familiar. Her aching feet reminded her that she was alive. There had scarcely been a time in her life when she hadn’t felt tired. Tired was an old friend. Wet, though, was a feeling she hated. She’d been on the road for almost a week and had exactly one sunny day, most of which she’d been in a forest. Wet made her feet and thighs itch; it gave her blisters on her toes. Wet was an annoying cousin that ruined her socks, spoiled her mood, and made every footfall treacherous. Cold was worst of all. Cold made the wind bite through her leathers; it made the rain her enemy. Cold could be deadly if she didn’t keep her wits about her. Cold, wet, and tired. The life of a traveler.
The sun hastily made its retreat below the horizon, leaving her to make out the trail in rapidly dimming light. One more ascent stood between her and the plateau roads. If the stories were to be believed, roads on the plateau were covered in straw on the sides for those on foot and brick in the middle for carts. Half-true would be a blessing.
I loved it. It has rhythm. It has symmetry. It’s pretty. It was also rejected, and rightfully so.
It took me a while to really figure out why it got rejected. That first opening was beautiful, but it didn’t tell the reader anything about the story. What do you know after reading that? You know Erica is cold, wet, and tired. You know she’s on a long hike – you don’t even know where she’s headed, except “the plateau.” You know that things are slightly nicer there, or at least they’re rumored to be. You also find out it’s getting dark, and you get a vague impression that she’s had a tough life when I say “There had scarcely been a time in her life when she hadn’t felt tired. Tired was an old friend.”
A few weeks after I got that rejection, I finally realized that the opening to the first story I was ever going to publish was crap. OSC (and the other Boot Camp slush readers) were right. It’s fun for me now to look at the changes I made and look at whether or not I changed it for the better. Let’s see. Here’s the beginning of Shelter as it was published.
Nothing was ever as easy as it sounded. Deliver the letter to the Viscount – that’s it. That was the one and only task Erica’s half-brother Markus had entrusted her with, along with four coppers for lodging along the way. Maen wasn’t hard to find; follow the big road out of town. She’d know she was there when she got to the top of a plateau and found a huge city. Markus had even pointed out the trail on a map for her. Six days ago she had actually been excited to be finally trusted with something important for the family business. Six days ago she had been dry and the city guard had assured her that the road was safe and that it only took four days to make the trip. Five and a half days ago, a cold west wind had blown in and brought a storm that had yet to let up. Nothing had gone right since.
Only one farm that she passed would even let her stay the night – and they had demanded a whole copper! She didn’t know whether to count herself lucky or cursed that she hadn’t found another place to stay on the road. The cold and the rain was miserable, but it was free, and she’d have to make the trip back with just the three coppers in her pack. Five and a half days of constant marching along a road that was rocky at the best of times and a soupy mess now was beginning to wear on her. She’d been through worse. This, at least, was only physical discomfort.
The opening of a story is all about making a contract with the reader. What is the story about? Why should he care? Let’s look at Shelter’s new beginning and see how I improved it.
In the first two sentences, you know Erica’s objective. It’s all she’s trying to do for the first story, and (not a huge spoiler) it is the task she completes at the end of the first issue. What else do we know? After the third sentence, we know she was sent on the trip by her half-brother Markus. We know why she’s going. We know she was given four coppers. We don’t know whether or not that’s a lot of money, but we get the impression that it isn’t, especially later.
In three sentences, I’ve made the story more interesting than I did in the entire opening that I submitted for Boot Camp. Shelter was improved by this change – it is a much, much better story after having been rejected by OSC. I thanked him for that personally. I don’t think I would have seen how horrible my original beginning was without his input.
Let’s keep looking at the second opening to find out what else we learn. We learn she’s been walking for six days, and that the trip was only supposed to take four. Things have gone very wrong on her trip; it had been something she was really eager to do. We find out how short her money supply really is; the first place she stayed charged her a quarter of her funds for a single night’s stay. We also find out that she wasn’t expecting it; four coppers is a lot of money to Erica, but not to the owners of that farm.
We learn a few other things by implication as well. Markus had to point out the route on a map for her, so she either isn’t very familiar with how to read maps or just plain can’t read. We’re also left wondering – why is Markus sending his half-sister out on a four-day journey by herself? This implies she’s an adult or that Markus is a grossly negligent caretaker. We also are left with the somewhat vague statement that she’s had a tough live, but we have something more to go on here than we did in the first opening. “She’d been through worse. This, at least, was only physical discomfort.”
One big takeaway that I got from OSC’s class was that the worst sin a writer can commit is to withhold information from the reader. Tell the reader what the story is going to be about. You gain nothing by leading him along bit by bit, because he only ends up feeling cheated at the end. If Erica knew what was in the letter she was carrying, it would be pointless of me to hold that information back until it was crucial. It violates that contract that you make with the reader, that if he is in the mind of a character, he knows what that character knows. The reader should never be operating blind.
So what contract have I made with the reader? What is this story going to be about? Just from the intro, we know it’s a story about a journey. We have a sympathetic female protagonist. We know she’s had a tough life, we know things are all going horribly wrong, and we know she’s got a lot to overcome. We know she’s trying to deliver a letter for her family. All of these are important to the plot as it moves forward, so I think I’ve done a fairly good job of giving the reader a reason to care. Having taken the class and had the “no withholding” concept drilled into me, I probably could have improved it, but then again a story can always be improved. There’s no such thing as a perfect manuscript. One of the other big points OSC made in his class was that you shouldn’t tinker. You will rarely improve your first draft – that is the only living draft of the story, and aside from copy editing (correcting your grammar, fixing misspellings, etc.), there’s not a lot you should do.
If I were writing it again, I don’t think there’s much I would change. I might do away with the first sentence, or perhaps transpose the first two. I would probably mention that she knows the letter has something to do with taxes, since that’s the extent of her knowledge. You don’t meet Lear for five more paragraphs (about two pages), so I might bump that up, but I don’t think I would put the wizard in the opening. Erica doesn’t know Lear when the story starts, and the story is her story, no matter how interesting the land of the wizards is. She is the woman trying to find her place in the world, no matter how hard it tries to reject her. Those Who Die Young is now and will always be a single viewpoint story. I don’t always write single viewpoint stories; City of Magi jumps around from chapter to chapter, and I think it works beautifully.
When I mentioned to OSC what a positive change his rejection had made in my story, he said that was the first time someone had ever thanked him for rejecting them. Aside from taking it personally, I see no reason not to learn from a rejection. It’s an objective evaluation of whether or not your story (or portion thereof) is good – you need to improve it. The matter is settled. He also suggested I submit it for IGMS, now that I had improved it, but of course I couldn’t do that because it had already been published. Also, it’s 37000 words, a bit longer than that which is usually in IGMS. I will, however, be submitting something for IGMS, having had such a great time in the class, and I can’t wait to send it in. Maybe it’ll even get rejected.
PS – For the curious, the short story I’m working on will be set in the City of Magi universe, and I’m actually really psyched about it; it’s turning out to be really interesting and very well-suited to short story format. I’ll keep you posted about how things go. And don’t worry about Bearers of Bad News, that’s in copy-editing and final revisions stage already. It should be ready to go by the planned release date of September 24th.