In 2008, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. To learn more – and to satisfy my natural tendency to “teach stuff”, I started a series of essays taking the wisdom of published writers and then applying each “nugget of wisdom” to my own writing. During the six years that followed, I used the advice of a number of published writers (with their permission) and then applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda to an analysis of my own writing. Together these people write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Today I add to that list, Lisa Cron who has worked as a literary agent, TV producer, and story consultant for Warner Brothers, the William Morris Agency, and others. She is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences, and a story coach for writers, educators, and journalists. Again, with permission, I am using her article, “A Reader’s Manifesto: 15 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has for Every Story” (2/16/18 http://blog.creativelive.com/essential-storytelling-techniques/)
Onward then. Cron writes, “The reader expects a clear, present and escalating force of opposition, with a loudly ticking clock.”
What exactly does that mean? I guess I thought ALL stories are supposed to have this element – tension that drives the story from the beginning. And yet, do I always do this? Maybe examining the first sentences of my most recent publications would help to see if I got this right or not.
“As readers we expect a clear, concise idea of what the escalating consequence will be should the protagonist ultimately fail, and a ticking clock counting down to that consequence. That’s what stokes the mounting urgency we feel as she struggles to solve the problem before it’s too late. If we don’t know where it’s going, and what the obstacles are, we can’t anticipate what might happen next…Is the force of opposition clear, and can we see where it’s headed? Does it escalate? Can the reader anticipate what will happen next, why, and what we’re counting down to?”
While she doesn’t explicitly state this, my guess would be that in a short story, this needs to start from the very beginning. Say, the first sentence or two…in the first paragraph at least, I would expect.
Let’s start with my work-in-progress. At this point, while I know WHERE I’m going, I’m having serious trouble starting it. [I just realized as I typed the previous sentence that I have, perhaps WAY too much going on in this story. By an analogy: my wife and I watched the first season of a British baking competition. One of the challenges was to bake a layered cake. One of the contestants had so many layers that they all “mooshed” together to become indistinguishable from one another. Perhaps that’s what I’ve done to myself here…]
So, the first sentence: “In the dream, my late wife stretched out next to me wearing a brief, red silk pajama top. Her eyes said that there was exactly one thing on her mind. Then a raccoon tossed a popcorn into the air and snapped it up and said to me, ‘Have you ever seen wild corn?’”
While all of these elements play into the story as it progresses, I’ve currently got way too many layers here. Maybe if I narrow the story down to a single one rather than one that involves the Shabe, the Pak/Gref, the Krrlgrrbitz, a Mynosaur, the Sand, and Humans…wow. Confusing. I guess I know what I’ll be doing today as it rains…
The first sentence in my soon-t0-be published short story (ANALOG, November/December 2019): “Larry Henry was muttering in the Orion Lunar lander mockup when Mission Control interrupted their regularly scheduled disaster. He was alone today, simulating the death of the rest of the crew.”
WOW. I love that first sentence! No wonder the editor bought it.
The next is from a short story that’s been bounced four times already and is awaiting review at another publication: “Tiviifei Jones straightened, no longer leaning on his cane as the gMod platform sank to the ground. The Human Cemetery and Memorial was still, cool, Earth green, and vast. A final resting place for ten thousand, four hundred, and eighty-two Weldon colonists slaughtered by invading aliens.”
Hmmm…I know where this is going, but the alien first name and the gMod platform. That segues into the third sentence which DOES imply an escalation. I wonder what Tiviifei is doing there. Why a cemetery? Why the visit? OK – perhaps it’s OK; on the other hand, I can see why it may have been bounced.
My most recent published story (Nebula Tales Issue Four, https://www.amazon.com/Nebula-Tales-Issue-Various-Authors/dp/1688967206): “Baek Pi Ji-woo stepped from railroad tie to railroad tie, bundled in her well-worn, quilted Russian jacket, and heavy boots with hard soles. Frigid winds lashed around her. Pausing, she looked up to the distant, pine wrapped, snow blown mountains. She could turn off the rail, walk away, to disappear into the forest. She would tire eventually, lie down, fall asleep in the snow, and never wake.” (OK, so I’m fudging a bit…these are not all the first sentence…)
Lastly, my most recent ANALOG story (September/October 2019): “Javier Quinn Xiong Zaman clicked on the last email in the clinic’s queue and read, ‘Doctor Scrabble, the supply of Dicraeia warmingii you adjusted has reached abundant proportions and the female Goliath Bullfrog appears not only ready to drop her eggs but to deliver an auspicious number, perhaps even enough to assure…’
“From somewhere overhead, he heard a loud bang and scowled. The nightly stream of maglev trains started an instant later, bringing scavenged materials from the DEconstruction And Recycling Robots – DEARRs – to the Minneapolis St Paul Vertical Village. The ground shook and a faint whine reached him even a kilometer west of the tracks. Probably something going on with that abomination.”
Hmmm…this isn’t that great. In fact, the actual story has nothing to do with the bullfrog eggs, the DEARRs, or even MSP Vertical Village…
Each of the publications I sent my most recently bounced story to are top of their field. Currently, the actual first sentences of their current issues:
Clarkesworld (September 2019): “I know what Dave wants even before he says it, before I’ve even taken off my stupid work cap or thrown my keys on top of the pile of crap beside the door. He’s taken his head off again…” (Technically not the first sentence, but there you go.)
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (January 2019): “Abby opened the till and found crumbled bits of dry leaves in the stacks of five-dollar bills.”
Asimov’s (September/October 2019): “The land slept hard, after months blanketed beneath deep snow. Seeds nestled in the soil, frozen on the cusp of sprouting, and the earth was riddled with slumbering creatures strewn cold in their tunnels, the husks of the dead and of those yet to reawaken.” (Again, not the first sentence.)
OK…there’s no jargon in those first sentences where there is in mine.
Though, other than that, they are, none of them, spectacular; though the second sentence of the first story automatically compels you to read on. The others, not so much (mine included, except for “Kamsahamnida, America” in the November/December ANALOG…that’s good.)
So, I didn’t always follow my own advice, though Lisa Cron doesn’t actually insist that the tension be right at the beginning. However, “As readers we expect a clear, concise idea of what the escalating consequence will be should the protagonist ultimately fail, and a ticking clock counting down to that consequence. That’s what stokes the mounting urgency we feel as she struggles to solve the problem before it’s too late. If we don’t know where it’s going, and what the obstacles are, we can’t anticipate what might happen next…Is the force of opposition clear, and can we see where it’s headed? Does it escalate? Can the reader anticipate what will happen next, why, and what we’re counting down to?”
I guess this is a clear call to me to go back and examine what I’m doing. I AM doing things right; but I’m not doing things as well as I CAN.
Food for thought for myself. Food for thought for you? Let me know.