Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mean December Wind

The opening sentence of this first page puts us in capable hands:

"They came to us with the mean December wind, three cars in all." The cunning juxtaposition of a personified wind (picture a cartoon character with furrowed brow, puffy ruddy cheeks, quivering jowls) with those three matter-of-fact cars, is unsettling, as it's meant to be. It thrusts us into the psyche of the narrator, a child whose home on Christmas Eve receives an uninvited visitor—not by Santa with his brimming sleigh of gifts, but the grim reaper who comes for his mother.

Several things account for the effectiveness of this opening. For one, it appeals immediately and thoroughly to the senses. First, we have that "mean" wind; we don't need to be told that it's cold, or harsh, that it lashes cheeks and draws tears. Next, we are treated to the ominous rumbles of those approaching cars, "their exhausts reverberating off mounds of snow, then the moaning of their engines." Note the choice of words: "muffled rumble," "moaning"—sounds that connote the mother's dying breaths and moans of agony during her death throes. Drawn by the "moaning" of those engines, the narrator rushes into the living room where he "[pulls] the drapery back." I can feel those heavy drapes parting under the influence of small hands as the boy "[presses his] nose to the pane." What the narrator sees through that icy pane is no longer the benign world known to him the day before, but a world transformed by death.

According to the boy's father, the cars hold "relatives coming to pay their respects." And though the boy may not say so, or even know it, we feel that for him those three cars with their ominous rumblings stand for death itself.

Is it a stretch to assume that the breath with which he fogs the glass is as fleeting as the oval of fog itself? And that the dust he tastes on his lips is the dust from which we're all born, and to which death will return us all—and sooner than any of us care to think? I think not.

The narrative's retrospective approach is likewise well-handled. The story is set in the now fairly distant past—1956—long before many if not most of today's readers were born. And yet it opens with a sensual immediacy that brings the past into the present, that makes it as real to us as our own breaths and sensations. By the time we learn that "It was the day after Christmas, 1956," we are already there, inhabiting that past as though it were ours.

And that's crucial, since, whether or nor we admit it, ultimately the only stories that matter are those we inhabit personally, not just with our minds, but with our senses. The fiction writer's job (or that of any storyteller, where the stories are real or imagined) isn't to report experience, but to create it. And experience is processed in the mind by way of the senses.

Here, the author skillfully tucks exposition into narrative: "Watching the cars approach I wondered . . ." Though background information if supplied ("It was the day after Christmas, 1956 . . ."), we are never once lifted out of the scene, out of the psyche of the boy whose nose is pressed to the cold window as he peers out at those arriving cars. Like a sponge, the vividly rendered moment soaks up all background exposition introduced into it. We are never once removed from the scene, or from the psyche of the boy whose experience we share.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tanks & Miracles

Displaced by the Soviet Union's invasion of 1968, a young man and his Czech family relocate to Canada, to fulfill "the promise of yet another new life" there. That's one way to sum up the material in this first page of what I assume is a memoir.

But slipping out from under the treads of Soviet tanks is only one of many "miracles" that the narrator has either witnessed or benefited from directly in his life. I put "miracles" in quotation marks, since here they are conflated with other things, with magic and with prayers, and hence the term's meaning is broadened to include everything from surviving an invasion by some 2000 Warsaw pact tanks, to the "miracles" of marriage, childbirth, and "cranky old men seeing their tumors disappear overnight."

This expansive definition of miracles makes for a good attitude toward life (though the cynic in me can't resist wondering what prayers are answered by the existence of tanks and tumors in the first place). Whether it makes for a good memoir opening is doubtful.

Clearly, the narrator has a story to tell. Indeed, he seems to have a grab-bag of stories, surviving Brezhnev's tanks being one of many. He has also survived another displacement, that of his father (whom his mother "sent packing") by her "new man, the Doctor Professor." This domestic restructuring happened eight months before those Soviet tanks rumbled into town, causing the already unstable ground under the narrator's feet to tremble that much harder. From Bratislava he and his family escaped to Vienna, and from there to Toronto—on a plane which, we're told, "did not crash"—in itself, according to the narrator, another miracle.

In selecting "miracles" as his theme, and then defining them so loosely, the author casts such a wide net over his material that it's hard to say what, exactly, this memoir is about, other than the narrator's very eventful life in general—which, however eventful, isn't a fit subject for a memoir, but instead launches this project into the territory of autobiography. Not a good thing.

While an autobiography is essentially a first-person account of someone's life, a memoir has a thematic focus to which the memoirist's history s subordinated. The key to a good memoir, as someone once told me, is that it's not about the memoirist, but about something that the memoirist has experienced first hand—an ordeal or challenge (Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, Swimming to Antarctica, by Lynn Cox), or a relationship (Tobias' Wolff's This Boy's Life, Jeanette Wall's The Glass Castle), or life in a particular time and place (Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, This House of Sky, Ivan Doig), or a revolution (Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-Li Jiang), or a spiritual crisis or journey (Practicing Resurrection, by Nora Gallagher, Dan Barker's Godless).

Unless you're already a public figure, or known for some other reason, it's questionable whether anyone will want to read your life story; anyway they would need a reason to read it. The memoir form supplies that reason by treating the author's biography as the well from which a particular story is drawn, and not asking readers to drink the whole well dry.

Here, with this first page, the author suggests many intriguing tales, but unless he draws his thematic net tighter and narrows his focus, he'll drown himself— and his readers— in autobiography. Which would be a shame, since not only does this author obviously have a story to tell, he has estimable gifts of language and voice with which to tell it:
Our father had been laughter, but mainly absence. The stepfather was rules and rigidity. The new regime together was marked by clenched teeth on all our parts. My mother was, I think, happier than she had been, but not when all four of us were together; then she was tears and apologies.
This is good writing. It only needs to serve an equally good purpose, and that purpose should be not to illuminate a whole life, but a particular experience—in this case, I think, how the "miracle" of survival, while it holds out the promise of "yet another life," also subjects its benefactors to further, and sometimes even greater, perils.

As for which portion of his eventful life best illuminates that theme, the author must decide, and cast the rest of his life into the background where it belongs.

Friday, November 12, 2010

An Arrow into the Heart of a Story

Ideally, the first words of a work of fiction should point like an arrow to the heart of the story—not, necessarily, to the middle or the climax, but to any point within the story, including the very beginning, otherwise known as the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is what propels a character or characters out of their status quo routine and into that terrible thing that all writers must sooner or later grapple with: a plot. But to qualify as a plot, events needn't be sensational, or even all that dramatic: they simply need to be out of the ordinary; to depart from routine. Otherwise, no circumstances exist by which to put that routine into perspective so it can be properly appreciated. The characters and circumstances merely exist; they lie inert on the page.

Which is pretty much what happens here in this otherwise very nicely written first page. Roused from her early morning sleep by the sound of a hammer striking wood ("thunk, thunk, thunk"), the narrator walks into the bedroom of her forty-eight year old brother. But as we discover via a very lovingly rendered description, this is no ordinary forty-eight year old:
. . . he sits on the floor, cross-legged, with his back to the door. Above his ears that protrude a little too prominently from his head, his short brown hair is sticking up in several places. Not a gray hair in sight for him.Sometimes when I see my brother’s innocent joy, it is easy to forget that he’s a forty-eight year-old man. A two by four board is across his legs. His right hand grips the top of the hammer to gain more control.He only moves the lower part of his arm as he taps on the wood. Yes, he is trying to be quiet for my sake.
By way of this careful, sensitive description, the author avoids stating what soon becomes obvious to the reader: that the brother is mentally handicapped. This judicious description, which broadens to include the brother's room, takes up the rest of the first page, and never ceases to be wisely and carefully observed, down to the structure the brother has assembled from his Lincoln Logs, "shaped like a square, missing the bottom rung on one side, so it leans to the right."

The trouble with all this carefully wrought description is that it lacks that crucial arrow. What it says essentially is "I have a retarded brother." Note the passive verb. What it doesn't say is "Something happened" or better still: "Something is going to happen." The thing "happening" here is, or seems to be, a meticulously described routine: the brother playing with his hammer and nails. In a word, this opening is static.

Here is what I would ask the author: what is the inciting incident, the event that propels these characters out of their routine? At what point in the story, as written, are the words "One day," or their equivalent, stated or implied? Begin there, and let the status quo emerge in the context of extraordinary events so it won't be static, so it has something to play against.

Routine cannot be dramatized.
It is antithetical to drama. And that's true even if the routine is unusual or exotic, like having a mentally handicapped brother, or disarming land mines, or carrying water for elephants in a circus.

An exercise to help writers discover whether they are writing routine: see if the words "as usual," "normally," or "always" can be inserted in the prose. If so, the answer is yes.

A Self-Conscious Queen

In the dressing room of the "Lipstick Lounge," the Lady Javana "straighten[s] her wig" and "dab[s] lipstick from her teeth." Lady Javana, we're informed, is neither a man nor a woman, nor "a boy in a dress" nor "a female impersonator" ("what female wears glitter on her eyelids, pink beehives and six-inch heels?"—Quite a few do, as a matter of fact, but never mind).

No, in her own overdetermined estimation, Lady Javana is a queen. I've italicized the word since the author goes to such great lengths to emphasize it.

Which points to what I feel is wrong with this opening. Rather than present us with a character, instead the bulk of this first page is taken up with a series of terms and metaphors by which Javana either identifies his/her self, or that he/she refutes. What starts out promisingly as an evocative, concrete scene ("She had to plaster down those eyebrows with the glue stick, beat her face with the powder, chisel new features . . . with foundation and blush") in which the particular (drag queen putting on makeup) stands for the general, breaks down into an exercise in denotation, such that, by the end of the page, what we've read feels more like a jacket blurb than a scene.

It's a shame, since the writing is strong:
Lady Javana—who spent most of her days as Joseph Ryan Gainer, library assistant—hated the tired metaphor of the caterpillar and the butterfly, but could not dispute its relevance. Because the holometabolism of the butterfly was a complex transition. It was sticky, confusing and savage.
As prose this can't be faulted, but the issue here isn't so much whether or not the metaphor of the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly aptly conveys the experience of a drag queen. The metaphor may or may not be apt; but the harping on it here conveys a self-consciousness that would seem to apply more to the author's fascination with his subject than to the character in question. Though hatched from its "self-mutilating" chrysalis, this butterfly never takes flight: like a lepidopterist's specimen, it's been pinned to the page and pasted with labels.

Butterflies don't go around self-consciously inventorying their butterfly-ness. Nor do readers of fiction especially want labels, and if they do want them they prefer their own. Nor do readers want judgments imposed by the author on a character or by characters on themselves. What readers want is experience evoked concretely through action, dialogue, or through a character's internal responses to particular events, challenges and situations—illuminated, perhaps, by a sympathetic or worldly narrator, and possibly by the character's own reflections, but not sewn up and boiled down into shrunken headed judgments and epithets.

Here, the only behavior exhibited aside from the application of lipstick and eye-glitter is the character's self-conscious pursuit of a label for him/herself. Even accepting that this pursuit is real—that is, belonging to the character and not to an author overly fixated on the presumed novelty of his subject—still, it's hard to imagine such self-conscious soul-searching taking place, as suggested here, on a regular basis for any duration. Surely this queen doesn't spend his/her days (or nights) mulling over what to call himself? If so, one wants to say to him/her, "Get over it, already." Perhaps folded somewhere into the meat of the story such reflections wouldn't be so out-of-place. But as an opening gambit they misfire.

What's sacrificed here for the sake of a story about someone "being a queen," is a better story about a man—a librarian—who just happens to be one.

Drive-by Girl

A woman fresh out of a mixed-bag relationship is harassed by the specter of her ex-lover as she goes about her routine chores.

This opening scene finds Dana taking the long way to her supermarket to avoid the school where Jerry teaches, and where he's known to remain long after the last bell on behalf of his students, "correcting papers, offering extra help, and throwing baskets in the gym." One gets the feeling that Jerry's solicitous nature did not extend to his relationship with Dana—a suspicion confirmed later at the Stop & Shop deli counter, where Jerry's ghost berates her for buying mashed potatoes to go with her rotisserie chicken.

The technique employed here is interior monologue, also sometimes referred to as stream-of-consciousness after the term coined by psychologist William James. But while the stream-of-consciousness technique tends to encompass narratives as a whole (such that descriptions, setting, dialogue, and actions are all conveyed, as it were, by the flowing stream), interior monologue functions as a distinct device within a traditional narrative—as in the given scene, where Dana's thoughts enhance the narrative, but don't subsume it.

Compare with this passage from the most famous stream-of-conscious narrative of them all:
... Mulveys was the first when I was in bed that morning and Mrs Rubio brought it in with the coffee she stood there standing when I asked her to hand me and I pointing at them I couldnt think of the word a hairpin to open it with ah horquilla disobliging old thing and it staring her in the face with her switch of false hair on her and vain about her appearance ugly as she was near 80 or a loo her face a mass of wrinkles with all her religion domineering because she never could get over the Atlantic fleet coming in half the ships of the world and the Union Jack flying with all her carabineros because 4 drunken English sailors took all the rock from them and because I didnt run into mass often enough in Santa Maria to please her with her shawl up on her except when there was a marriage on with all her miracles of the saints and her black blessed virgin with the silver dress ...
With this sort of stream-of-consciousness, the author relinquishes—or appears to relinquish— control of the narrative to the mind of his protagonist. In fact that "loss of control" is entirely and cunningly contrived to give the appearance of spontaneity and randomness, much as the drips and spatters on a Jackson Pollack appear to be random and spontaneous (they aren't).

With interior monologue the author never quite lets go of the reins. In the given example the narrator (as distinct from the protagonist) remains behind the wheel, as it were, telling us, between forays into his character's thoughts, how, having choked back the bile inspired by a vision of Jerry shooting hoop with his charges, Dana "took a left and another left, heading toward the Stop and Shop." The narrator goes on to explain that in shopping Dana "is all business, plucking apples, bananas, strawberries, and raspberries—expensive, but she deserved them." Note how with that "but she deserved it" we are dunked, however briefly, into the protagonist's subjective stream, back into her interior monologue. That she plucks apples and strawberries is an objective fact; that she deserves them is purely her subjective opinion, a taste of interior monologue.

This subtle mixture of objective authorial narration and a character's subjective perspective goes by its own names. Called close third person by some and free indirect style by others, it lets narrators move seamlessly between objective reporting ("Dana wheeled her cart over to the deli counter") and a character's thoughts ("Oh, mashed potatoes."), to where at times one can barely distinguish the two ("she planned to enjoy these mashed potatoes").

The virtue of this technique (aside from dispensing with all the "she thought"s and "it struck her that"s), is that it flavors the whole narrative with a character's feelings—as a sliced onion, left next to the butter in the refrigerator, flavors the butter with onion. Yet unlike the aggressive stream-of-consciousness technique, it gives authors full control over the degree of objectivity.

In this opening the free direct style is well-employed, though one might quibble that if Dana's brain is indeed "working overtime" to avoid picturing Jerry in his classroom, that hard work hasn't paid off well, as we are treated to the very images she's intent on avoiding. Better perhaps to have her inadvertently drive by the school, having neglected to take an alternative route, and thus the image of Jerry gyrating on the basketball court with his charges will be both better motivated and inadvertent.

It seems to me, too, that if indeed Dana is haunted by Jerry, better use might be made of his specter, who ought to be right there in the driver's seat beside her, telling her to change lanes and use the turning signal and that she almost cut that curb. The supermarket scene likewise feels stingy. Why not have Jerry's take on more than mashed potatoes? Why not see him micro-managing Dana's shopping list? Though he may not be there physically, Jerry is a character in this scene—or should be. Under the influence of Jerry's ghost she might hesitate to drop that quart of mashed potatoes into her cart—and then defy him. Surely that beats telling us that this is what Dana would not have done in the past.

However skillfully or seamlessly rendered, a character's inner thoughts are no substitute for actions.