Writing a Recalcitrant Character

(This essay was posted 7 days early on my Patreon. Thank you to all my patrons!)

I wrote this on a writers forum, about my current progress in writing my Tor.com novella, “Woman in the Tower Window.” It’s an interesting process, but very frustrating at times! I thought you might like a peek behind the scenes:

Writing a story from the POV of a character who actively wants to conceal all of her emotional truths and reactions, so it’s all got to be in subtext. I hope the story will be good, but she’s driving me nuts!

She has a vested interest in establishing herself as silly, slow, and unaccomplished, while also presenting the things around her as having more import than they do. She sees herself as a sort of unremarkable, unnecessary character in the corner of a grand painting. She wants to talk about the painting, but she doesn’t want you to look at her, so she puts up a number of shifting obfuscatory pretenses to try to make herself blurry and unworthy of attention. I think she thinks that if you turn any attention on her, and see past the various pretenses to her emotional truths, you will see her as not just useless, but actively contemptible. She’s also trying to get in front of that feeling, I think; she thinks any interlocutor will discover she’s unworthy eventually, so she preemptively identifies and apologizes for it.

It can make every sentence a fight, though, as I try to figure out how to push forward, while elements of her character are constantly pushing back. I imagine this would be her psychological process of writing as well, so it’s not inappropriate for the story, but arrrrrgh.

Or, like, she would happily muse about the aesthetics of, e.g., the bird cage of her finches for another six paragraphs because that’s not emotionally difficult for her, but she’d like to cover the whole traumatic sections with minimizing elisions emphasizing her own flaws and self-blame–“the unpleasantness which, in my simpleness, I was unable to forestall” sort of thing.

Why I Write in Cafes

A cup of coffee with latte art and a notebook with a pencil

I’ve been writing a lot in cafes recently. Well, mostly one cafe, but I’ve dallied with others.

It’s a nice cafe. It’s located next to a bus stop that has a route to most of the places I want to be, which makes it easy to get there and to leave. The round tables are a bit small for a large laptop and a drink, but you can’t have everything. I drink iced tea, and sometimes I order a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes, and the friendly staff have gotten used to my order. The number of customers waxes and wanes with the season and the light and the weather. Sometimes it’s hard to find a pair of empty tables so I can sit with my writing partner, but mostly it’s doable.

I like the art on the walls. It’s not always to my taste, but it’s cool seeing displays of the local artists. If nothing else, it keeps my critical skills for visual art a little more sharpened than they would be otherwise. Do I like that? Yes? No? Why? I wonder what kind of art I’d be producing for the walls if I had continued on the artistic trajectory I was on at eighteen.

I like most of the background noise, including the loud conversations from strangers nearby. I like voices. The music is often not my taste, but only occasionally too annoying to deal with. The worst times I’ve had are when people are having breakdowns in the cafe. A woman sobbed on one of the couches near me for an hour or so, once. I wanted so much to go hug her.

Sometimes someone overhears me and my writing partner talking about writing and wants to talk about writing with us, which is usually okay, unless I’m heavily absorbed in working–in which case I probably wasn’t talking to my writing partner in the first place to attract attention. I like meeting new people.

A long time ago, a prominent SF writer grumbled that people who write in cafes aren’t really writing — it’s more for show than work, he said, a way of playing the writer in public. I think that’s a real phenomenon– I’ve definitely both seen people do that, and probably been the person doing it (at least on days when I just could not get my brain to cooperate).

I don’t mean to belabor the argument from that old post–it’s just that I think of it sometimes when I’m getting more done at a cafe than I can elsewhere. It makes me ponder why the cafe is a useful space for me.

Some of my thoughts about why:

Having a space dedicated to fiction means that I’m less likely to end up doing administrative business.

There are a lot of components to maintaining a writing career, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. When I get overwhelmed, I try to organize things, and I can get caught up just doing administrative work, or other kinds of tasks that seem (or are) urgent, but don’t get the creative work done. Those tasks can be easier to approach because there’s usually a done/not-done state at the end, where writing is long, continuous, and hard to predict.

Having a routine.

Like many other freelancers and self-employed folks, I find that time management can be tricky. It’s easy for days to blend into one another, and slip away before I can manage to get traction. When I was living somewhere without many writers around, that was particularly difficult. Here, where there are masses of artists of all varieties, I have a lot of people that I can meet to work with. Having a set time and place to work, and a set person I’m working with, encourages me to develop habits that make my time more efficient.

I always accomplish something, or prove I can’t.

Because I’m at the cafe with someone else, and we are there with a purpose, I always spend at least some time trying to write. Some days, nothing comes. More often, even if I feel creatively dry, I can scrape up something, whether it’s a bit of editing, a paragraph or two, or the beginning of a story (which I may never finish). On my own I can get depressed over those days when the writing doesn’t work, and it makes me avoidant for a while afterward. With a writing partner, there’s a set time to try again.

Having a writing partner.

When I’m at the cafe, I’m with someone I know well. We can commiserate over failed work attempts, and celebrate the days when words come easily. We often write in timed bursts. If I can’t get anything done in the timed burst — usually thirty or forty-five minutes — then I have a check in time where my partner and I can try to refocus each other, so there’s less possibility of never getting back to work. Writing can be lonely. With a writing partner, you have company (while often still being lonely; that can be the nature of the work).

There’s bustling noise around me.

I’m comforted by having sounds around me. I like the sounds of people particularly. In a cafe, I get to hear people around me in a pleasant buzz that I can tune out well enough to work. Since they’re mostly strangers, I’m less likely to end up distracted than I would be if I were writing with a group of friends.

Having a reason to leave the house.

As an introvert, if I don’t actively find reasons to leave the house, then I’m likely to just sit at home with the cats. (The cats appreciate this.) Writing at the cafe with a partner gives me a time and place where someone expects me. If I don’t go, it inconveniences them. (The cats don’t appreciate this.)

Forming a community connection.

Not only does the cafe get me out of my house, but it also prevents me from spending all my time with my friends at their houses. It forces me to participate, however minorly, in the public life of our city. I meet people I haven’t met before, and see people I’ll never formally meet at all. I get to see slices of the vibrancy around me.

Peer Pressure

This is similar to “having a writing partner,” but there are other ways to accomplish it, like reporting word counts on social media or a message board. I’m accountable to someone, even though it’s informal, and there are no penalties. I can think, “I should work… Lee is working.” And Lee can think (direct quote), “Must set a good example for Rachel.” A little bit of social approval goes a long way.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon. Thank you to all my patrons!)

How do you handle writer’s block?

writersblock

There are a few different kinds of writer’s block.

One kind is medical. If one of my chronic illnesses is flaring up, I may not be able to write. It’s hard to write through a migraine, for instance. It’s also hard to work through things that are less acute than migraines, but last for a long time, like depressive episodes. It can feel like it’s never going to be possible to write again, and that the block is something you’re just faking, and could get through if you just tried hard enough.

I think one of the best solutions is to be gentle with yourself about it. Hammering yourself and making yourself feel guilty because of your health is in the way is only likely to make you miserable and increase your stress–which can make the health problem worse. It can be hard to be generous with yourself, especially when the illness is lasting a long time and you have deadlines. Do what you can–but when you can’t do more, keep it in perspective. You may be doing more work than you think you are, and mental work counts, too.

Mental work is the other kind of block that I find most often afflicts me. This is when there’s something wrong with the story that I have to solve before I can continue. For instance, in my current novella project, the main character is speaking in first person, past tense, so I needed to know what timeframe she was speaking from, and how she felt about events. What is she trying to communicate? Because the story lies in how she feels about what she’s “saying,” whether she’s literally telling someone else that or not.

While I didn’t know that, I couldn’t compose, because I couldn’t know how she’d feel about or relate events. I tried, of course, and I tried a few different angles on it. I talked about it with people and took other measures to deal with the problem intellectually. But in the end, I personally need to have an emotional connection with the story that I can’t just intellectually engage. A lot of mental work was happening in the back of my brain, and at some point, my subconscious was like, “Yeah, I’ve worked that out now. I’m feeling it.”

This is also a time to be generous with yourself and your pace. Tying yourself in knots about your progress can cause it to be even harder to have that psychological breakthrough. Mental work doesn’t always feel like work because it doesn’t produce words on the page, but it is work, and it’s necessary work. Give yourself credit for it.

Those are the primary types of writer’s block I experience. Do you experience a different variety?

In Defense of “Slice of Life” Stories

slice

When I was in college, I insisted that any poem worth its words would have a strong idea behind it–something it wanted to communicate to the reader. I still think that, but I’ve broadened my definition of what an idea is.

Many poems attempt to communicate an impression or an emotion. A poem about nature might not be intended to communicate “here is an intellectual idea about nature,” but instead “this is what it looked like through my eyes” and “this is how it felt.” Fine art landscapes can be like that, too. They depict a place at a time, both transient, through the eye of the painter (where the eye of the painter may figure more or less into the image, depending on whether it’s a realistic painting, etc).

What this makes me wonder is–why are we so dismissive of this in fiction? Plots are excellent; ideas are excellent. But what’s so wrong with a slice of life, that we refer to it with distaste? Why can’t fiction be about rendering transient, momentary emotions? Why do we demand they always be in the context of a plot?

I expect this is a historical artifact of genre expectations for fiction. I think the prohibition against plot-less fiction is stronger in science fiction & fantasy circles, but it’s definitely something I’ve heard reinforced in more academic or literary spaces.

One factor that occurs to me — is this influenced by how we imagine the role of the author in fiction, versus in poems or paintings? A poem is not necessarily written from the perspective of the poet, even when there’s an “I” at the center of the verse. Culturally, however, the belief that a poet is the narrator of their own poems is so strong that in every poetry workshop I’ve been in (I’ve never been in one on the graduate level), the teacher has to remind people at least a couple of times that the assumption they’re making about the narrator’s identity isn’t necessarily true.
Paintings, also, are generally seen as being rendered by oneself. This doesn’t have to be true either–the artist’s eye doesn’t have to be the one that observes, and the painting doesn’t have to render what the artist would see. Our narratives about painting speak even more strongly against the idea that they are filtered through a perspective other than the painter’s, and it’s not hard to see why — we think about painters bringing models into their studios, or taking their canvases out into the open air to paint the mountains. Even less realistic work tends to be narratively fitted into the idea of painter-as-observer–for instance, the way we talk about the artistic work of people with mental illnesses (for instance, Van Gogh), suggests that the ways in which the artist’s vision differs from the objective eye is integral to their “madness”–that they literally see the world as they paint it.

I think we culturally acknowledge that life rarely has an actual plot or shape to it. Poems and paintings are more easily classified as themselves slices of life, so when they omit plots, that is consistent with our expectations from them. There’s more room in memoir than fiction for this sort of thing also (although it can be contentious), wherein the writer is expected to be relating something of themselves.

Fiction is seen as more of a pretense, I think. And while there’s a general acknowledgement that life itself fails to be narratively tidy or have plots, most people seem to expect that if you’re going to go to all the work of building a pretense, you should make it more aesthetically tidy than life.

Without taking anything away from plot- and idea-driven fiction (my personal bread and butter), I think that closing off the possibility of slice-of-life stories makes our body of literature weaker. I want authors to have access to a full range of tools so I can read what they build.

Come break the rules with me! (in a class. on Sunday. with Cat Rambo.)

Consider this your invitation: start (or continue) to Break the Rules with me in less than three days! After Daylight Savings Time is over and the clock falls back, I hope you’ll spend some time with Cat Rambo, me and your writing this Sunday, November 5th at 9:30am PST 

Breaking the RulesBreak the Rules!

Tell, don’t show. Dump your information. Write in second person. Write in passive voice. Use adverbs. To heck with suspense.

Rules mark what’s difficult, not what’s impossible. There’s a whole range of exciting storytelling possibilities beyond them. Not every story needs to be in second person, but when it’s the right voice for the right story, it can be magic. The right information dump, written perfectly, can become a dazzling gymnastic feat of beauty, fascination and horror.

“Break the Rules!” will teach you inspirations and techniques for rowing upstream of common knowledge. You can break any rule–if you do it right.

Register by mailing Cat Rambo at cat AT catrambo.com and specifying whether you would prefer to pay by Paypal or by check.

The cost for a single session live workshop is $99 for new students; $79 for students who have formerly taken a class with Cat (or Rachel). Classes are taught via Google Hangouts; all you need is a computer with a microphone and reliable Internet connection, but a webcam is suggested.

(At least a few secrets: If you register for this class, you’ll be able to learn from all of the other storytellers going first. If sign up for my newsletter, you can learn about when I’m teaching next. If you support my Patreon, you can learn what and where I’m writing first.)

Old Stories Into New: Come Take My Class on Retellings!

Hey! Come take my class on retellings!

October 7, 2017 at 9:30am PST.

(Secret: If you join my newsletter, or sign up for my Patreon at $1 or more a month, you’ll get discounts.)

Old Stories x800 Retellings graphic instagram

(It used to be called Retellings and Retaleings.)

Authors constantly draw on the stories that have preceded them, particularly folklore, mythology, and fables. What are the best methods for approaching such material and what are the possible pitfall? How does one achieve originality when working with such familiar stories? Lecture, in-class exercise, and discussion will build your proficiency when working with such stories.

Register by mailing Cat at cat AT catrambo.com and specifying whether you would prefer to pay by Paypal or by check. The cost for a single session live workshop is $99 for new students; $79 for students who have formerly taken a class with Cat (or me!). Classes are taught via Google Hangouts; all you need is a computer with a microphone and reliable Internet connection, but a webcam is suggested.

Can’t make it on the 7th? I have an on-demand version of Retelling and Re-Taleing: Old Stories Into New available online.

Titles Follow-up: Clarkesworld’s Common Short Story Titles List

Yesterday, I put up an article about John Joseph Adams’ SFWA Bulletin article, “Zen in the Art of Short Fiction Titling.” The article was illustrated with a really interesting sidebar, publishing a list of the most common short story titles received by Clarkesworld Magazine.

“Shortly after Clarkesworld Magazine crossed the 50,000 submissions bar, they posted a list of the top ten story titles in their slush pile.” The list is online here.

Reproducing part of it:

First place

Dust

 

Second
The Gift, Home, Hunger, Homecoming

 

Third
The Box

 

Fourth
Monsters

 

Fifth

Lost and Found

 

Sixth
Sacrifice, The Hunt, Flight

The list calculates out through the tenth place, which — including ties — comes out to a total of more than forty titles. The frequency is between eight and eighteen.

Premises

I’m taking for granted here that one wants to have unique titles. The argument is that if a story has the same title as lots of others, it will be harder to draw readers in, and harder for them to remember or refer to the story later. However, that doesn’t always have to be an author’s main priority.

Second, the rules for titling novels and short stories are different, so this is only about short fic.

Where Things Go Wrong

I’m sure there are a lot of ways to think about the list, but here’s what shows up to me:

Common Clarkesworld titles1. A lot of people are using common phrases or cliches to create titles. I understand that. I used to do it a lot when I was working on fan fiction. I still do it sometimes. For instance, although the title isn’t on the Clarkesworld list, Ann Leckie and I published a story with the common title, “Maiden, Mother, Crone.”

The problem with this technique (IMO obviously) is twofold. First, sometimes it can be glib; sometimes it’s not the best title for the short story, just the easiest to come up with. Second, because everyone is familiar with common phrases and cliches, that means lots of the titles will be duplicated. Clarkesworld has, among others: “Skin Deep,” “Lost and Found,” “Perchance to Dream,” “Deus Ex Machina,” “Night Terrors.”

2. Writers use the format “The Noun,” when the noun in question is possibly intriguing, but not actually that unique. Some words have a tendency to be chosen more than others — when I taught poetry, I used to call them Poetic Words. Star, Candle, Love, Dream, etc. Clarkesworld notes: “The Git,” “The Box,” “The Hunt,” “The End,” “The Visit,” “The Collector,” “The Wall,” “The Prisoner,”  “The Machine,” “The Tower,” “The Dark,” “The Door,” “The Choice,” “The Fall.” When I was at Clarion West, Michael Swanwick referred to this technique as “The Lump” titles. Picking truly unique words helps, of course.

3. Using reasonably evocative words… that are the same evocative words everyone else usesThis isn’t quite “The Lump” territory because, actually, including or omitting the article makes a pretty big difference in a phrase as short as a title.

Some of these are titles that could be genuinely lovely if they weren’t so common. “Red” could be a perfect title for something if the work were isolated — but in this populous world, “Red” scores 8th place on the list.

Some of them are words that are actually pretty boring. For instance, “Sacrifice.” The word “Red” can prime me for imagery and perhaps even mood. “Sacrifice” is telling me about the events and theme of the story. I’m not usually a show-don’t-tell person, but in this case, I think I am. If you’re giving me a title that’s only one word, I want it to be a really cool word. Others on the list include “Legacy” and “Rebirth.”

I say this as someone who gave up and called a story “Virgin Sacrifices” once. I may have lots of ideas about what I like in titles, but I am hardly a champion titler.

Regarding memorable words, I think it can be hard to guess which words are common. In my experience, instincts can sometimes lead you down the garden path on that one.

Everything Has Exceptions

No doubt, the things I’ve said don’t apply universally.

Also, I’m sure there’s a story out there whose perfect title is “Dust.”

What should I have titled this essay? (Thoughts on John Joseph Adams’ “Zen in the Art of Short Fiction Titling”)

John Joseph Adams recently published an article, “Zen in the Art of Short Fiction Titling,” in the SFWA Bulletin.

As someone who hates coming up with titles, I was excited to see what he had to say. So I thought I’d write up some impressions on his article which I’m illustrating with some examples from my own work.

Titles That Come From the Text

Titles Not EasyJohn starts the article by noting several titles that he suggested to authors that he’s published in his magazines and anthologies. He discovered these titles “right there in the text of the stories themselves. When I’m reading or editing a story, I frequently highlight evocative phrases I come across that I can later suggest to the author as a possible alternate title. Sometimes the phrasing isn’t quite right for the title, but it’s something that can be massaged, or combined together with another phrase from elsewhere in the story, that somehow captures the essence of what the story is about.”

I used to do the large majority of my titling this way until I started my MFA program at Mills, where the teacher told me what John Joseph Adams brings up next: “I should note that some writing professors—including notable literary giants—advise against this practice, largely because, they say, doing this puts too much emphasis and meaning on the eponymous phrase when the reader comes across it in the story.” I actually wonder whether I’m the one who called this to his attention — we were on a panel about titles together a few years ago, and I brought that up.

As John points out in the article, whether or not this works is a case-by-case thing. In general, I think I’m happier if the phrase would be marked anyway — for instance, if it’s part of a lyric one of the characters sings, or the title of a movie that exists in the text. (My story “The Sea of Trees” refers to a commonly used poetic name for the setting.) John brings up a short story that uses its last line, but I’d argue that’s a phrase that would be marked anyway.

A few years ago, I published a story called “Beyond the Naked Eye” in anthology of John’s, Oz Reimagined. That’s a phrase that appears in the story a number of times; seeing what’s beyond the naked eye is one of the character’s obsessions. Because of that, it’s already marked. Also, I like the title because it also implies there are things beyond the naked eye going on in the story in more than the literal sense.

Sometimes, you can pull a phrase out for the title, and then change the text of the story so that it’s no longer exactly the same. One of my recent stories is called “Love Is Never Still” — that’s not a line I used in any of the poetic sequences, but it could have been, and I could have changed the text later.

And I don’t mean to suggest the technique never works without any of those tricks. I’m sure it does, with finesse and luck. You just need to find a phrase or sentence that can bear the weight of also being a title without becoming a sledgehammer. Finding the right balance can be tricky.

That said, this really is the easiest way to come up with titles. And it’s nice when you’re stuck coming up with something, because it gives you clear steps for proceeding.

Short Can be Good

John brings up the title of Chuck Pahlaniuk’s horror story “Guts” as an example of short titles that work really well. In this case, “Guts” creates a sense of foreboding, building tension before the story even begins.

I really, really like one word titles. I feel like a single word can be sort of delicious to imagine. That sounds kind of absract and new agey, but I mean it literally. When I think of the word “Dust” — when I just let it settle in my head — it has a whole rich dimensions of sensory associations. “Dust” is a word that seems like it should settle, silent and alone, without a lot of fanfare or accompaniment.

But it’s not a great short story title. It is, in fact, first on the list of most common short story titles that were submitted to Clarkesworld (as of when they last ran statistics). Use the title “Dust” and, like a grain of dust, it becomes an anonymous one of many.

One-word titles are probably my weakness. My preference for them is not echoed by most people, especially most writers and publishers at the moment (at least in short stories). I also sometimes use them when I’m lazy and can’t think of what else to do. As a consequence, I have a number of them, especially recently. I hope some are in “Guts” territory, but probably some of them are more like “Dust.”

Looking at the two I published most recently:

“Endless” — I suspect this of being a Dust-like title. It refers to something that is endless, but doesn’t do a lot of work with mood or extra dimension. It rests on the hope that the word is intriguing. (Also, “The End” turns up as one of the 7th most common Clarkeworld titles, although hopefully “EndLESS” would be a little less ubiquitous.)

“Tender” — Hopefully this is more like “Guts.” The story is painful, and the title suggests what follows.

Some of my others: Decomposition, Memorium, Exodus, Extremes, Heartstrung, Silence, Skyscrapers. I continue to believe that “Decomposition” was the correct title for that story, and “Heartstrung” worked well. The others were probably lazy.

Specialized Terminology

From John’s article: “If your story deals with a particular field, with its own unique terminology, you can also mine that for story titles.”

This is one of my favorite techniques. It’s usually specific and evocative, if you find the right way to do it. Like reading through your story to find a title already in it, this technique also gives you some clear directions on how to proceed when you’re stuck. I usually look up online glossaries.

My preference is to find terminology that will work on two levels, e.g. “Grand Jete” — both the leap in ballet, and a reference to the leap into death.

References

John again: “You can also title your story by referencing another work, or borrowing an evocative phrase that is applicable to your own story.”

I do this, but have started doing it less, and making sure what I’m referencing is older. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” is a reference to a contemporary Israeli poem, and I probably wouldn’t use it now for that reason. Whereas “What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love” is a riff on William Carlos Williams, and “Between Dragons and Their Wrath” references Shakespeare.

John adds that, “You can even “borrow” more directly and just reuse an exact title another author has already used,” and then lists several examples. That works if you have a particular fictional conversation you readers to be thinking of, I guess, but it seems to me like it’s a specialized use.

Also, the Clarkesworld List

I found the Clarkesworld list really interesting, and I think I’ll look at it in another post.

In Sum

I use several techniques John doesn’t list here. Most of us probably have our own idiosyncratic strategies. I liked the article, especially its practical approach.

The real question is: what should I have titled this essay?

 

First Lines Part III: What Can They Do?

Part I: Half a Dozen of My Recent Stories
Part II: from Some of My Favorite Stories

After giving close reading to a dozen first sentences, half mine and half others, I’m ready to make a list of things that a first line can do (although probably no first line should try to do all of them).

  1. Include a mystery the reader wants to solve by reading the next sentence.
  2. Set a fast reading pace.
  3. Foreshadow the story.
  4. Establish the basics the reader needs to move on with the story.
  5. Create relationships between reader, character and narrator.
  6. Quickly encourage readers who are interested, and discourage those who would rather read something else.
  7. Most importantly, the use of A) diction, B) grammar, C) imagery and D) punctuation in order to establish X) character, Y) setting, and Z) mood.

Or, in abbreviated graphic form:

what a first line can do

What else do you think they do?

First Lines Part II: from Some of My Favorite Stories

Part I: Half a Dozen of My Recent Stories

Continuing from yesterday’s post, I’m looking at the first lines from some of my favorite stories to see why they work. I picked stories that aren’t very recent, and are either by people I don’t know or by writers I met after reading the story. If I do it again, I may relax that rule, but it seemed like a good way to start out. I only used stories that are online so you can go see how the story progresses if you wish. Again, if this turns out to be interesting to me or other folks, I may do more.

The Evolution of Trickster Stories among the Dogs of North Park after the Change” by Kij Johson

“North Park is a backwater tucked into a loop of the Kaw River: pale dirt and baked grass, aging playground equipment, silver-leafed cottonwoods, underbrush, mosquitoes and gnats blackening the air at dusk.”

Obviously, this sentence is scene setting. Kij makes it beautiful with her specific details: “pale dirt,” “baked grass,” “aging playground equipment,” “silver-leafed cotton-woods,” “mosquitoes,” “gnats.” Almost all of the details evoke slow decay–“backwater,” “baked grass,” “aging.” Insects don’t gather in the air so much as dirty it–“blackening” the dusk. The evoked colors are washed out–pale, baked, silver–we can possibly also include the old metal and rust of the playground equipment. The silver-leafed cottonwoods are the exception here–the color is on the grey/black spectrum, yes, but the tree still sounds beautiful. This is decay, but not hopeless decay.

The sentence also establishes the academic tone. This is the kind of sentence assembled by someone speaking authoritatively about a subject, not describing their sensory impressions of the world. The phrasing is formal and complex, and the use of the colon an even more significant marker.

Like Daughter” by Tananarive Due

“I got the call in the middle of the week, when I came wheezing home from my uphill late-afternoon run.”

There’s definitely a mystery here — what’s the call?

“Wheezing” gives us a sense of the character’s age, perhaps–at least that she is unlikely to be a very young athlete–since she is still wheezing even though her uphill run is regular enough to be referred to as “my late-afternoon run.” She’s athletic, but in a real-person-exercising sort of way.

Other than that, I don’t have much. It’s fine. It’s an appealing sentence, tightly written, and I’m happy to move on with it.

Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery” by John Schoffstall

“I got your voice mail.”

Conversational. Establishes a relationship between the reader and the narrator immediately — “I” and “you” (and also suggests the reader isn’t actually the “you” being addressed. Is there a term for that?). The questions it poses are obvious — who is speaking? Who am “I?” What voicemail?

I suppose, given that it’s the story it is, it also sets up the reader for some irony–that this story about the postal mail begins with a voice mail.

Perfectly reasonable first sentence.

Little Faces” by Vonda McIntyre

“The blood woke Yalnis.”

I really like this sentence. Utterly simple, utterly direct. Again, the mystery is obvious–what is the blood? The fact that Yalnis doesn’t know only makes it more urgent. It drives the reader rapidly to the next line.

There’s not a lot to say about it. It’s just good.

In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages

“Once upon a time, the Carnegie Library sat on a wooded bluff on the east side of town: red brick and fieldstone, with turrets and broad windows facing the trees.”

librarians quote pabloAnother setting sentence. We’ve got the titular library, and the reinforcement from this sentence that it is important. Actually, that’s misleading. It’s not a *titular* library–in fact, the library is called a house. Backing up to the title, which the reader has as a cue along with the first sentence, the emphasis is on location. This isn’t the story of the seven librarians, but rather the library–but the library is defined by its relationships. It is the “house” of the librarians; the story is what happens inside it.

So, moving back. Now this sentence is reaffirming what the title suggests–setting is vital here. The story takes place inside; the first sentence tells us about the outside. I suppose, if we want to overextend a metaphor, we could say it’s the cover of the story.

The descriptions are all aligned to evoke the kind of library readers sigh over. “Wooded bluff” “broad windows facing the trees” — a picturesque, beautiful location, which the broad windows suggest is filled with light. Let’s be honest, this is reader fanservice. Personally, I’m good with that.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang

Her name is Ana Alvarado, and she’s having a bad day.

This is a fine sentence. It tells us what we need to know and suggests we get on with things. We have a who (Ana Alvarado) and a what (she’s having a bad day). Next, we’ll get the why. Almost journalistic.

It also sets up a narrator who has a personality separate from that of the characters. It might be another character, or it might just be the narrative perspective from which the story is told, but this sentence creates an immediate distancing effect. The reader is observing, not participating.

From this, I learned a couple things.

  1. It’s a lot easier to do a textual analysis on your own first sentences than other people’s. Although:
  2. It might be easier to do textual analysis on stories I’d read more recently.
  3. I don’t seem to select for first sentences particularly when I’m choosing my favorite stories. These are all good, but only a couple dazzle. That’s not surprising. A good first sentence is a tiny element of a story, nice but unnecessary. I might try tracking really good first sentences, though, if I remember (I won’t).