categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
I often have great, clear ideas for fiction, glorious stories blooming whole in my head, but when I sit down to write, something happens. Or more accurately, nothing. Or at least nothing like the vision that came middle of the night or driving to Portland, or (frequently) watching a good movie. Maybe this is because the crisp, beautiful idea I’ve envisioned is really only a series of events detached from person and place, or alternately an image attached to a problem–something like a dream, compelling and vivid but impossible to grasp in real time. Where to start?
For poets (for all of us, that is), the late Richard Hugo recommended something he called the triggering town. In fact, he wrote a craft book called The Triggering Town to explain: when he’d sit down to write poetry each day, he’d name a town at random, whether real or imagined, and begin to write about it. Before long, his lines would move away from the town and toward the issue at hand, something he hadn’t planned, or something he’d long thought about but couldn’t quite reach. End of the day, he removed the town lines and stanzas and often pages and was left with a draft of the actual poem.
It’s rare anymore for me not to know what I want to write, but it’s still true that I seldom know how to start. What I do know is that the best thing to do is simply go. Almost anything will do, but I do have my tricks.
The most basic (and this makes a good exercise for your students, if you’re teaching any kind of writing, but especially fiction), is to put a person in a time and a place with an object, and then proceed (you have to say “no guns” these days if you’re using this in class, or half the males in class will choose guns as the object, and as we know, guns have to go off). This works if you’ve already got your idea in mind or if you’re just trying to have an idea. You can’t have a story without a time and a place and a person. Objects have a way of turning up on their own. No thinking allowed. Just go:
Last year I found a pair of sunglasses on the beach.
But make it more specific:
On a hot evening last August I found a pair of expensive Ray-Bans on the beach at Moby Font.
But who found them?
On a hot evening last August, Saba Werner found a pair of Ray-Ban Navigators on the beach at Moby Font.
I don’t know where the name Moby Font came from. But it’s kind of evocative. I don’t know if Ray-Ban makes a pair of sunglasses called Navigators, but they do sound expensive. I’m writing this in a notebook in a coffee shop in Waterville, Maine, where I’ve just seen the new Werner Herzog film “Cave of Dreams.” And Saba is the local artist having a show at the coffee shop. I just needed a name. Later, if things take off, I can keep or change it.
I’ll come back to Saba shortly, as I’m not sure of our protagonist’s gender.
I love looking at the openings of favorite novels, thinking about how they start, or just browsing novels at a bookstore. Some will be little changed from the first words a given author wrote on the project. Others will bear no relation. That part, the genesis of Genesis, we can’t know. Best just to observe. Many start with place and setting. Others with a character. Some with dialogue. Many with a problem, which is as much to say, plot. Some are exercises in language. Often, that object I spoke of appears. Fewer books these days start with an idea or a theme, some grand abstraction. And plenty start with something you might call atmosphere or mood. And of course most start with some combination among the above, even all of the above and then some.
In a future post, I’ll analyze some openings. Maybe yours, if you send it to me (email@example.com). But for now, back to our opening, which is just an exercise after all, a triggering town, if you will.
It’s fun to mess with point of view:
You’re walking the beach. It’s August. Still hot, though the sun is on the horizon. You step on a pair of sunglasses. Ray-Bans, nice.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a young man with a pair of lost Ray-Bans in hand will stumble on their owner and duly fall in love.
Night. The beach at Moby Font after the fight. The tide rising to clear all evidence. Werner Saba spots the sunglasses, picks them up, tries them on. “The fuck?” Someone shouts from up on the seawall.
Actually, a gun would be kind of cool. So just replace sunglasses with gun or really anything else. An ancient oil lamp. A baseball mitt. Car keys. A bikini bottom. A plastic cow.
But I’m stuck with the sunglasses. Also, I’m partial to the love story (and notice that I’ve inadvertently flipped our protagonist’s first and last name):
Werner Saba stepped on a pair of sunglasses. He picked them out of the sand, brushed them off. Ray-Ban Navigators, nice in the moonlight. He put them on his head–later he could turn them in. Later, he could do lots of things. Right now, he had to find his hotel, and he couldn’t tell one from the next, a great line of hotels stretching both ahead and behind like chalk cliffs battered by the sea.
I haven’t said anything about voice. Sometimes, language is where you start. Generally at peril, as above, but it can be changed later–right now, for better or worse, I’m just inventing.
Ahead there was music, the island beat.
Okay, I’ve got a situation. Time to launch the plot. To do that, something’s got to happen. Finding a pair of sunglasses doesn’t feel like enough. Being lost is pretty good, but. The best way to make something happen is generally to introduce another person. Her name’s Eva and she’s really tall. I mean, I know her name’s Eva, but Werner only knows she’s tall. And that she’s alone at the beach bar he’s pulled up at.
He hurried, but the bar was deserted, nothing more than a grass hut, really, with no one working, just a single patron, a lady in residual sunblock and a bathing suit sitting very upright on her bar stool, a huge, half-consumed bowl of pink drink in front of her.
I’d better get them talking.
Werner said, “Is there someone working?”
“I don’t speak English,” the woman said perfectly. “And no, what do you tink, there’s no one working? Of course there is someone working.”
“I’m lost,” Werner said, more desperately than he meant.
“And yet you have found my sunglasses.”
Well, now, after a little more talk and maybe a drink or two, I can have fun getting them to his hotel (she doesn’t have a room at all, having just walked out on her boyfriend), later go back and change the sunglasses. Probably they’ll have the name Eva emblazoned on them. Unlikely they would be Ray Ban Navigators but something more like those pictured above, Sonia Rykiel pearl sunglasses, which I just found on the Internet. If Werner knows right away that they are Sonia Rykiel pearl sunglasses, I will have shown quite a bit about him. But probably he doesn’t. And probably he doesn’t know they cost over $1000. Maybe she’ll make him wear them while they have sex. She’s an archeologist studying Moby Font. Or maybe, given the glasses, a location scout for a modeling agency. So we’ll learn whatever the fuck Moby Font is, some kind of geological formation, maybe magical, a site of pilgrimage.
The story’s feeling like a comedy, but I can darken it if necessary. Scars on her thighs. And what’s Werner doing in this place? Besides, I mean, having the best sex of his life while hoping Eva isn’t having the worst? And what’s going to happen when the boyfriend finds out? (Not what even I expect, that’s for sure.) Perhaps the sunglasses will continue to play a role, perhaps not.
I can go crime, spy, literary, sci-fi, maybe not children’s or Christian inspirational.
Anyway, it’s a good exercise, and a great way to beat back the sometimes pernicious idea that you have to know where you’re going before you start.