Wednesday, September 16, 2009
The Paths of Eden
Rather than start with a geography lessons ("The Suwannee River begins in a Georgia swamp . . . " ) why not start with real estate agent Dan Horne in action, driving up a logging road? Stories have one subject, people, not rivers or geography.
Also, rather than have Mr. Horne escorted up a non-specific logging road to a non-specific cabin, why not give readers what they need to form a more clear, less generic image of the road, and to particularize the cabin—but not before we get there. Create the moment with more vivid and immediate sensory detail, an--having created the moment--stay in in it. Also, when does the agent ask "Is this far enough out of the way for you" ? A mile from the cabin? A hundred feet from the door? On the front steps of the cabin? The idea is clear; the action isn’t. The author has not immersed him/herself sufficiently in the event. As readers we are not quite there.
"There was [a kitchen]": the weakest word pairing in the language. Ditto “It was” ["a dark and stormy night."—Edward Bulwer-Lytton]. Since we are sharing Dan's experience here, render the description active through his senses? "He entered a small kitchen . . ."
A kitchen, a room, some furniture. Nothing specified; everything generic. There are no generic kitchens: even in their genericism (beige Formica) kitchens are identified by their particulars. This same tendency to generalize continued with the “sturdy pier” “small boat.” Adjectives give us opinions, but nothing solid, nothing sensual. Rather than give opinions about these objects, provide the sensual details on which the opinions are based. It takes more work, but it's worth it.
By the end of the third paragraph readers may want a visual of at least one of these characters. I don’t "see" them. They are disembodied names and voices.
Last paragraph: They've left the cabin? Unclear. A transition is needed. A white space might help. "Honor the white space."—Mary Gordon.
Right now, this opening is all purely objective, as if a camera were watching these two men. No subjective content; we are not in either of their heads. And yet even the objective camera’s point of view isn’t clear. In film this is never a problem, obviously, since the camera can only be in one place at a time, and we as viewers never question its position. But in fiction, the “camera angle” must be solidly established through language. There is a big difference between a purposefully objective point of view (as Hemingway gives us in his story “The Killers”) and no POV, or one that's accidental or arbitrary. In Hemingway's story, the stark, cold, objective treatment of the material suits the subject: a story about two hired killers arriving in a midwestern town to fulfil a contract. Here, there does not appear to be any such clear intention; the lack of any subjective content or clear point of view filter seems more like an omission than a decision, and makes for a muted, insipid reading experience. We are denied the subjective content of prose/fiction, but are given nothing to take its place. The subjective filter has been removed; but there is no "stark" or "cinemagraphic" filter here to take its place. The result is bland.
Either give us a sense of whose experience we are reading, or provide us with a camera eye's vivid objectivity.
Posted by Peter Selgin at 3:57 AM