Guest contributor: Kyle Minor
categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
Today’s guest post is by Kyle Minor, author of In the Devil’s Territory (Stories). He’s at work on The Sexual Lives of Missionaries (a novel). And he’s an all-around good guy. Like Bill, he works all night.
I. Bad Advice
At Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, when someone offers “bad advice,” the advice that follows is usually pretty good advice. The phrase “bad advice” is armor, because you know how it goes. First, you offer good and useful advice, and then somebody gives you the one example of why the greatest story anyone has ever read would be a terrible story if the writer followed your good and useful advice. And then somebody else puts on a black beret and lights a cigarette and talks about how all true art is boundary-breaking, and all true artists would never accede to the tyranny of conformity. Then the open mic night begins, and somebody starts beating the bongos, and somebody else yells abstractions into a microphone and uses the word “poetry” a lot. Three friends in the front row say, “This performance really flows,” and the four drunk guys at the bar watch the basketball game, which is, let’s face it, the better of the two shows.
If you ask me, as Bill and Dave have asked me, to offer some bad advice, I’m not going to give you “bad advice.” I’m going to give you some seriously bad advice.
So here’s some bad advice: Start all your stories in the middle. Start a scene without worrying about managing information in a way that helps your reader fall into the fullness of the point of view from which the story arrives. Don’t let the reader know who the speaker might be. (Better, yet, don’t know for yourself who the speaker might be!) Don’t let us know where we are or when we are. Don’t bother to establish the story’s ground rules. If we’re on the planet Jupiter, and our lovers are a swarm of gnats who breathe methane and know they’ll die the first time they profess their devotion to another swarm of gnats, don’t let us know that until page 14 of the 15 page story.
As a bad lover might, begin with the climax. Get it out of the way in the first ninety seconds. Be sure to stop the forward motion of the story near the top of page two, and then spend five pages doing the necessary exposition that helps us understand what we just read on page one. Don’t attend to the music language makes in the first sentence. Consider opening in unattributed dialogue. Consider attributing the dialogue to a speaker with a first name – Frank, or Joe, or Bob, or Mary – and don’t bother to let the reader know who Frank or Joe or Bob or Mary might be. Quickly introduce a second speaker with an equally generic name – Martha, maybe – and don’t bother to let the reader know the relationship between Frank and Martha. If they are sisters, don’t let us know that they are sisters until page seven. If they are lovers, page eight. If they are mother and daughter, page nine. If they are mother and daughter and they are also lovers, page eleven.
Don’t get quickly to the trouble (http://www.gulfcoastmag.org/index.php?n=2&s=2607). Let us first hear about the weather. Describe the characters by their faces or the color of their hats. Do a lot of gestural stuff—smiling, winking, nodding, arm-crossing. When we do get to the trouble, be sure that we start with a single-character scene where a character is alone in a room and crying about something that happened to her which we haven’t yet seen. Do a lot of interior monologue full of the language of felt emotion. Use abstract words like angry, happy, sad, love, exhilarated. Stick an -ly on these
words and be sure to get them into your dialogue tags. “I am so happy,” Mary said exhilaratedly. “Me, too,” Frank snorted uproariously. “Me, three!” Martha ejaculated spently. What a happy family they be!
Don’t avoid the impulse to make extraordinary generalizations. (“All happy families are the same,” Mary, Frank, and Martha said winkingly.) Don’t avoid the impulse to do any essaying your story might require at story’s beginning rather than story’s end. Don’t hang out with the kind of people who do the kind of work your characters do so you might know at story’s beginning that our dentist, Dr. Hewitt, would use the D-11 Root Extractor rather than a pair of tweezers to retrieve the shard of decayed tooth root he broke off during the extraction. (Let’s be fair: He was distracted. He bought this dental practice and the building that housed it from vain old Dr. Green, who painted the walls green in tribute to his own name, and no matter how many times Dr. Hewitt paints the walls white, a ghastly green tint peeks through. Why didn’t Dr. Hewitt negotiate more vigorously? Why did he overpay by $100,000 for this third-rate practice and this building with these goddamn green walls?)
II. Good Advice
Here’s some good advice: Read everything. Pay close attention to how your betters are beginning. Build up a catalog of borrowed opening gambits. Note the relationship of point of view to time. If the first person narrator is offering a dispatch from the moment, and we don’t have a latter-day narrator to offer helpful expository runs, how does the writer compensate in offering the baseline information the reader needs in order to understand the first moment in the same way the speaker understands the moment? If our speaker is very old, and the story itself is therefore about all that has changed—all the possibilities now turned to what-if-I-hads—how, then, might the story signal that the reader’s greater patience with all the heavy-lifting will be rewarded with a corresponding pleasure?
How does the story manage the givens particular to time and place, which form the ground rules by which the characters understand the world and make their decisions? If we say that the story of Romeo (age 20, let’s argue) and Juliet (age 13), set way back when in fair Verona, is about star-crossed lovers whose love is fated to tragedy because they belong to incompatible rival families, then what happens if we signal good and early that our Romeo and Juliet is set in Toledo, Ohio, in the year 2012? Does the reader then know that we have a statutory rape story? What if we don’t establish time and place until page 20? Will the reader turn to page one, and read again the first twenty pages in light of the new and necessary information, or will the reader throw the book across the room in frustration?
Is it too much, to talk about all these things as abstract concepts? All right, then. Call down a parade of books from your shelves. Say: “Dance for me, baby. Sing.” It’s like a Broadway audition. Hundreds of thousands of fresh-faced singer-dancers are ready to offer their songs, but the harried old casting director, who has already seen it all, doesn’t have time to hear the whole song. Not everybody’s whole song. The only people who get to sing the whole song are the people who don’t hit one wrong note, make one wrong step, but that’s not all. Lots of our auditioners are technically proficient. There’s something else the casting director requires, too: A big chance, taken. A special quality of voice and movement. The promise of something visceral or cerebrally pleasing or otherwise new. The spark of life.
Five minutes ago, I gave this a try. See now the parade of my pretties, and the notes I made about them in my notebook of do-or-die:
1. Openings simply establishing who speaks and/or when and where we are in space and/or time:
“William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.” – Stoner, John Williams
“When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another.” – “Water Liars,” Barry Hannah
“I am Gimpel the Fool.” – “Gimpel the Fool,” Isaac Bashevis Singer
First, note the efficiency with which this strategy dispenses with the offering of necessary information. (This is why newspaper journalism has kept to the convention of the dateline, and why magazine journalism so often embeds the dateline in the first sentence.)
Second, note how little this strategy has to do with voice or speaker. Those are elements independent of the structural gambit, which is to open in the most clear manner possible. The voice of the speaker makes other kinds of promises about the story we’re about to enter. We know, right away, that John Williams is about to offer us a stately, measured, and plainspoken account of the life of William Stoner, something not unlike a biography. We know, right away, that Barry Hannah’s narrator will be a yammerer, possibly an exaggerator, a gather-round-the-campfire-and-let-me-tell-you-a-tale-son sort. And we know, right away, that our Singer’s Gimpel is going to stare his trouble straight in the face, and we trust and love him for it.
2. Expository openings whose primary purpose is to introduce us to the trouble at story’s beginning (and these often also include the matters of who speaks and/or when and/or where we are in space and/or time):
“Of the twenty stallions brought to Cap Francais by the ship’s captain, who had a kind of partnership with a breeder in Normandy, Ti Noel had unhesitatingly picked that stud with the four white feet and rounded crupper which promised good service for mares whose colts were coming smaller each year.” – The Kingdom of This World, Alejo Carpentier
“For the first three years, the young wife worried that their lovemaking together was somehow hard on his thingie.” – “Adult World (I),” David Foster Wallace
Again, could these two speakers be any less alike? The elegance of Carpentier’s language elevates story and speaker, as does the choice to fill the first sentence will stallions and the breeder in Normandy and the ship’s captain and the stud with the four white feet and rounded crupper. It’s all there – sex, death, colonialism, grandeur. We expect an epic sweep. And the corresponding inelegance-unto-artlessness of Wallace’s language – the young wife, “their lovemaking together,” “somehow hard on his thingie” – signal a colloquial and near-to-our-ear speaker and a no-bullshit account of something that might seem small unless you’re in it, and then it might well be the most important thing in the world.
What both sentences share, as opening strategies, is a great clarity. Both stories go on with the exposition for awhile longer, but in either story, if the scene began in the second sentence, we’d have enough information to be ready to enter into the scene without scratching our heads and wondering what the hell is going on.
3. Quick-to-scene openings (sometimes expository, but they signal that they won’t be for long) whose primary purpose is to introduce us to the trouble at story’s beginning (and these often also include the matters of who speaks and/or when and/or where we are in space and/or time):
“I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.” – “Dynamite Hole,” Donald Ray Pollock
“The child had been warned. His father said he would nail that rock-throwing hand to the shed wall, saying it would be hard to break windshields and people’s windows with a hand nailed to the shed wall.” – “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Mark Richard
“Lizard and Geronimo and Eskimo Pie wanted to see the scars.” – “Miracle Boy,” Pinckney Benedict
Here are three openings that work in a very similar way to the Wallace and the Carpentier openings, but they also have a special speed to them which the brevity and compression of their short stories will require. In the Pollock opening, note the change from the first part of the sentence to the second. We open with a passive-ish construction (“was coming”) which smartly embeds motion in it, and by time we get to “when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole,” we’ve already upshifted to a more active register (“caught . . . fucking.”) Note, too, the way Pollock offers us much about the narrator-protagonist by way of what he’s carrying (“three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf.”)
4. In Medias Res:
“Strike spotted her: baby fat, baby face, Shanelle or Shanette, fourteen years old maybe, standing there with that queasy smile, trying to work up the nerve.” –Clockers, Richard Price
“The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling.” – The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich
“He wanted to talk again, suddenly.” – “In the Gloaming,” Alice Elliott Dark
Here are three stories that open in the middle. (Remember: You can do anything. Even open a story in the middle.) They each must undertake the special challenge that all stories that open in the middle must undertake, which is: How do I parcel out the requisite information without slowing down the momentum and tension I’ve initiated and built by starting in the middle?
These three stories address that challenge in three different ways. Price opens in scene. The first thing we get is an action in a particular moment. It’s not a highly active action. It’s an action of observation: “Strike spotted her: . . .” Because it’s located in a particular moment, the tension of the particular moment attaches to it. Anything might happen after Strike spots her. The speaker isn’t making a static report: Strike saw this girl one time. The speaker is locating us in a now: Strike spotted her.
Price does some other things here worth our attention. First, our character’s name is Strike. This is his street name (he is a dope dealer), and things attach to it. Strike: Speed, power, initiative, efficiency, respect. Ordinarily, we’d hope to get the antecedent before we get the pronoun “her,” but Price has a special reason to invert them. The rest of the sentence is an unfolding of everything Strike thinks about this “her” in the moment he sees her: “baby fat, baby face, Shanelle or Shanette, fourteen years old maybe, standing there with that queasy smile, trying to work up the nerve.” Is he going to sell to her? Of course, he’s going to sell to her. But we sure did learn a lot about Strike as his mental process of deciding whether or not to sell to her is unpacked. By the end of sentence one, he’s more complicated than any dozen TV renderings of a young street dealer, and we probably love him. (Note, too – there is so much to like about this sentence! – how Price initiates the fluent street patter that is in some ways the defining achievement of Clockers, and how it lends authority even as it characterizes and brings pleasure.)
Erdrich also opens in scene, but her point of view is highly exteriorized. We’re not seeing through the eyes of the would-be assailant, as we see through Strike’s eyes in Price’s opening. Instead, we’re seeing the assailant from the outside, in something like an objective point of view, as a film camera might. This is a useful way for Erdrich to open what turns out to be a mystery story, which will be unpacked through multiple points of view. The first time we see this pivotal scene, we see it from the outside, in a sense reconstructed as a detective might do, and now we’ll read on to see how the thing that happened unfolded. Erdrich’s kin here is the vaudeville act – (I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, then I’ll do it, then I’ll tell you what I did) – or Charles Dickens – (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .”)
Dark’s in-the-middle opening still offers a little bit of expository scene-setting. (“He wanted to talk again, suddenly.”) Very soon, we’ll learn that the speaker is the mother of a son who is at the very end of a his life. AIDS. And in so many ways, we’ll learn, this talk leads to the knowledge that this son, this gay son, is the love of the mother’s life. And then, in the story’s final scene, we’ll get a rather stunning turn, after the son dies, in which the father reveals something about his own unexpected love for his son to the mother through whom we see, and through whose eyes we probably weren’t yet ready to see this about the father, but now we are, because of all we’ve seen. It’s as pyrotechnic an ending (in terms of the shock to the heart) as I’ve ever seen in a story, and it comes at the end of a story whose every part is quietly preparing the reader for it. The quiet opening gains in power and resonance, and we don’t know the full impact of “He wanted to talk again, suddenly,” until the story’s last line.
5. Openings in directly quoted dialogue:
“‘Either foreswear fucking others or the affair is over.’” –Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth
“’49 Wyatt, 01549 Wyatt.” – In Parenthesis, David Jones
“‘Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ she said.” – “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” Amy Hempel
It’s a big risk to open in directly quoted dialogue, because the reader doesn’t yet know who the speaker might be. In the case of Sabbath’s Theater, the risk is mitigated by the power of the statement: “Either foreswear fucking others or the affair is over.” (Note, too, the two hard f’s – “foreswear fucking” – and how they drive the sentence like a hammer drives a nail.) There’s another reason, too: The book itself is in many ways a meditation on all that is initiated when the character who says it says it, often from the point of view of the character to whom it was said, and in whose life big upheavals arrived as a consequence. In a manner reminiscent of a strategy favored by Joan Didion, the line will be repeated, inspected, turned over again by the receiver—and what writer could be less like Joan Didion in temperament than Philip Roth? But on grounds of technique, there is plenty of common ground. Matters technical and formal can be appropriated in all directions, toward ends unforeseen by the writer from whom one learns and borrows, and it’s unlikely that any but the savviest reader will even see the connection, if the writer of the new thing is stretching out fully into his or her own thing, rather than trying to be the other writer. Our aim is to turn the old means to new ends, and thereby transform the means.
6. A few other kinds of openings:
Contextless fragment whose function will become apparent later:
“Short story about a church on the ocean floor.” – From Old Notebooks, Evan Lavender-Smith
“Oh, poor Dad. I’m sorry I made fun of you.” “Nietszche,” Lydia Davis
Here’s some good advice. Whatever advice you’ve been given, if you push as far as you can in the opposite direction of the good advice, what would otherwise seem the fruit of bad advice can become something that resembles the fruit of really good advice. For more on these matters, I’ll send you profitably to Stephen Dixon (“The Apology”), Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), Jerzy Kozinski (Steps), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five), William Gay (“The Paperhanger”), Ernest Hemingway (“Hills Like White Elephants”), Margaret Atwood (“Happy Endings”), F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Benjamin Button”), David Foster Wallace (“Good Old Neon”), Christopher Coake (“All Through the House”), Bonnie Jo Campbell (“The Solutions to Ben’s/Brian’s Problem” http://thediagram.com/7_4/campbell.html) and Susan Minot (“Lust”).
Establishes alternative donnée (possibly because of altered consciousness, possibly because of space/time/physics displacement):
“In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere.” – “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Katherine Anne Porter
“It’s one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.” – The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, George Saunders
If you’ve got a special set of ground rules by which the speaker operates and of which the speaker is knowledgeable, best to signal them right away.
Essaying of some sort:
“They are conduits of emotion, kids are.” – “AM:31,” Amelia Gray
Here and most often, used for comic effect.
“So, Monsieur, it began with a great gust of wind.” – Street of Lost Footsteps,Lyonel Trouillot
Yammering by foregrounded omniscient narrator:
“Any mention of pirates of the fair sex runs the immediate risk of awakening painful memories of the neighborhood production of some faded musical comedy, with its chorus line of obvious housewives posing as pirates and hoofing it on a briny deep of unmistakeable cardboard.” – “The Widow Ching – Pirate,” Jorge Luis Borges
(Get on board or not, the speaker says, but right away you know what you’re in for.)
The language of advertising:
“So, you don’t believe in a future life. Then do we have the place for you!” – The Quick and the Dead, Joy Williams
“Since your letter is accompanied by an endorsement from your minister, I am happy to reply.” – “A Wilderness Station,” Alice Munro
Why not dispense with the narrator conceit altogether, and write your story as a progression of letters (http://www.ninthletter.com/featured_artist/artist/33/index1.html) from people who want things from other people?
Q: What’s the takeaway?
A: Don’t listen to me. Don’t take as gospel anybody’s good or bad advice. Take it as a starting point. Test it against everything. Read everything. Learn how to do all the things everybody else can do, so you’ve got an arsenal ready for any narrative challenge. Be capable. Be smart. Synthesize. Hybridize. Seek contradiction. Embrace contradictory ideas about things. Invent new out of old. Try it again, even if it takes fifty tries, until it makes you feel something. Read a thousand opening sentences. Write a hundred opening sentences if you have to write a hundred opening sentences. Make yourself smarter and more capable than you are now. Learn it so well you can forget it. Then operate out of instinct. Come out punching.
Q: What else?
A: You can do anything if it sings.