>Tips for Writers: Hit the ground running


Earlier this week, Fictionaut ran a short interview with me in which I mentioned an article by Sven Birkerts about the beginnings of stories he reads as editor of Agni. The essay is called “Finding Traction,” and it generally has the effect of frightening student writers because it seems to set an impossibly high standard for story openings. Of course, all readers are different, including editors, so reactions will vary to opening lines. In discussions about the Birkerts essay I’ve heard people say that they prefer a more leisurely beginning to a story, whatever that might mean. Also, if you read older stories, you’re likely to find plenty of examples of great fiction that don’t live up to what Birkerts says he likes to see.
Here’s an excerpt:

Taking from the top of the fiction pile, for instance, I read: “John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake.” I stop and respectfully slide the pages back into their envelope. The piece will be returned to its author.
Why? I could say a number of different things, and I will—because I voice them to myself and they seem to the point. I say (putting sentence- thoughts now to what would appear to an outside observer as a sequence of flinches, grimaces, and grumbling head-shakes), “This story is wooing me with a regular-guy protagonist. John Maloney—a name out of literary ‘Central Casting.’ The writer is making the enormous assumption that a common world exists and that he need only set John Maloney loose in it. He hits me right off with a trite exaggerated middlebrow verb in order to inject drama, but the word—‘hunched’—tells me that he has a secondhand, a ‘literary,’ idea of what a story is or might be. He is either young and inexperienced, or experienced and lazy. When a reader reads those words, she sees and feels absolutely nothing, or maybe gets a dull memory echo from the hundred thousand hunched shoulders she has met with in a lifetime’s reading. There is no attempt to welcome her to the Never Before.” 

The problem seems to be—just to boil it down in the way that I use it myself as an editor—that it’s not new. The name’s not new, the verb doesn’t do enough work, and the setting isn’t newly imagined. There’s no forward momentum or what Birkerts calls “traction.” The story doesn’t “hit the ground running.”
You can read the essay for yourself and draw your own conclusions. The real lesson for me is to realize that openings are crucial. As a writer I do not want to waste an opportunity to hook my reader, whether she’s an editor or a bookstore browser. And so I want to really make that first sentence do as much work for my story as possible.
I have been reading the most recent collection of stories by Richard Bausch, Something is out there. Bausch is a wonderful writer and story teller, and so I thought it would be an interesting exercise to look at the openings of each of the stories in this book. So, here we go:
·       From “The Harp Department in Love”: “This morning, while Josephine Stanislowski is tearfully packing winter clothes into a big box for the attic, her friend and neighbor Ruthie calls about the surprise party she’s having for her husband, Andrew, celebrating his graduation from college.”
·       From “Byron the Lyron”: “She was eighty-nine and had lived a long, rich life, and she told her one son, Byron, that she was ready.”
·       From “Reverend Thornhill’s Wife”: “Keeping strictly to the early-morning ritual, Diana prepared coffee, boiled one egg, and lightly buttered two slices of toast for him, then put cereal on for the girls, and went and dressed for the day, while they ate.”
·       From “Son and Heir”: “They left at seven, plenty of time to go four miles, even with all the traffic lights in the city blank and dead.”
·       From “Trophy”: “Today I got a letter from an old friend inviting me to come back to Virginia to help him celebrate a new opening in his chain of hot-dog stands.”
·       From “Something Is Out There”: “By the time they got back to the house, the snow had started coming fast in the swirling wind over the mountains to the west.”
·       From “Blood”: “Walter Clayfield’s older brother, Max, started the subcontracting business—house painting, carpentry, and wiring—upon his return from a hitch in the army in 1998.”
·       From “Overcast”: “Here is how Elaine Woodson attempted to describe things to herself one predawn:”
·       From “One Hour in the History of Love”: “Here are some people sitting in partial sunlight at one end of the Fresh Café patio, on Queen Street in the beautiful city of Toronto.”
·       From “Immigration”: “The middle of spring in Memphis and it felt like winter.”
·       From “Sixty-five Million Years”: “Because this was such a small parish, Father Hennessey knew many of the people who came to confess, and he was afraid that when he saw them on his daily rounds it might show in his face that their troubles and failures had lately, in spite of all his efforts to resist, been relegated to some zone of apathy in his heart.”
What do you think? Would Birkerts accept these stories? Or would he at least keep reading? Of these stories, six were published in Narrative Magazine. (I was surprised to discover that; I have seen Bausch’s stories in Narrative, but six in one book from the same magazine is a lot.) I don’t know if they would all pass the test from “Finding Traction,” but for the most part they pass my version of it. Or at least they come close enough to forward momentum that I would keep reading to find out where the author was going.
[About the picture: It was hard to find an illustration for “traction” in the sense that we’re using it here, so I went with the pun instead.]

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  1. >I agree that writers need to put a lot of thought into making the first sentence a strong introduction to the story. But I find Birkerts' comments about "hunch" being a "trite exaggerated middlebrow verb" quite disheartening. The idea that a journal editor is ranking the acceptability of my verbs gives me nightmares. And that type of attitude is why, in my opinion, last year a major literary journal published a short story about a drug dealer that included a description of a traffic light as "testudinal." It seems to me that those types of "high-brow" words need to have appropriate context in a story. The language of regular people can have its own beauty if done right — as many of Bausch's opening lines show.

  2. >Great exercise, thank you.
    (H'm, as Lord Peter used to say. This is the Sven Birkerts who wrote My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. Grok. Must admit, I wish his old Writing Well was in Kindle, even if just to irritate him.)
    I had a nightmare, an actual dream, after reading the essay. Birkerts turned into an alt version of you — but a ginger you, one with thick hair. We were at, but not in, some sort of hospital, and you were with a woman who also had bright red hair.
    I told you how demoralizing the business side of writing is, the repulsive, "required" self-promotion, the forced walking naked into frigid rooms of agents surrounded by impending avalanches of eager (but lonely) manuscripts. The marriage of business and art: doomed from the beginning of time. I kept telling you it was all too much about hunger, and that's a dangerous thing when you summon Dionysos.
    Wonder what an analyst would make of that?

  3. >Anyone else think there's a little irony in an editor calling a writer "lazy" when he disposes his manuscript after reading one line? In my experience there happen to be a lot of people actually named John Maloney. Actual people, not prototypes who do real things, like, I don't know, hunch. Maybe the story wasn't some kind of everyman platitude but you won't know that unless you read more than one freaking sentence! There's a lot of literature out there that's all about the hook instead of the story. It's called top forty hip-hop.

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