Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Writing about writing

My mom sent me a book in the mail. It's titled What If? with the subtitle Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. At first I thought hoo boy, another book on writing, great. I can waste time doing exercises that I will never actually use in my writing. Another pair of published writers trying to tell other people how to write, etc. These were my thoughts, negative and pessimistic, I realize.

Then I thought, maybe I could use it. What's the harm? I could read it and do the exercises, and put it in my blog with my thoughts. Hell, it'd keep me writing something, and it would give me material for blog posts, so why the hell not? It's better than not writing anyways.

So I read the introduction. Apparently these two writers are professors who have taught numerous writing courses. Well I guess those are good credentials for writing a book on writing. These two go back and forth on the topic of writing and actually sound intelligent and thoughtful. Now I'm thinking, maybe this book is a good idea. Who am I? Some awesome writer who doesn't need to work on his own craft? How big of an ego do I have? Why not perform these exercises and see if something actually sparks inspiration in my head, or at the very least makes me one shred of an ounce better in any way in regards to my writing. I mean, what's the worst that can happen? I write alot of crap. But that's normal.

So the first exercise is about starting the story. It is essentially about how you want to start a story right in the middle of some action. The background is something you can get to later. You want to hook the reader in with the first sentence, so bam, start it with the detective getting shot at, the monster eating somebody, Joe Shmoe losing his job, etc. Start it in the middle. You can always get to the background, to the real beginning of the story later, after you've pulled the reader in. This is, of course, great advice that I've heard a thousand times. I know it. It's essential if you want somebody to read something.

The book then gives many examples of published stories' first sentences, showing how they all start the reader off in 'the middle of things'. They are good examples, but they leave out my most favorite starting line of any story/novel/whatever anywhere.

"The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed." -The Gunslinger, Stephen King

I truly love that line. The second I read it, I was hooked. I was going to gobble that book up regardless of how shitty it might be, simply because the first line is perfection. Of course, the book turned out to be fantastic as well, but that's beside the point. I would've read that book no matter what. How can you not read that book, after that line? Mystery, tension, conflict...It's all there. Who is the man in black? The gunslinger? Why is one chasing the other? And it's so simple! So plain. 12 words. No names, no history, no background, nothing but the simplest line. I love it.

Anyways, here's a first line from two short stories I've started(long stories? Novels? I don't know yet) just for the hell of it.

"Harold E. Cudger woke up in a cold sweat, wondering just where the hell he was." -Bump in the Night(tentative title)

I like that starting sentence. It presents tension and mystery. Who is this guy and where is he? And why does he not know where he is? Here's the second:

"The alarm clock went off, rock'n'roll blaring out of it's speakers until a fist knocked it with entirely too much force." -Thriller(not really a title at all)

This one's a little less mysterious, less tension, but I still like it. Whose fist? Why did they hit the alarm clock with 'too much force'? I don't know. It might not be the best starting sentence. It might be deemed rather boring, but I suppose that's partially what I was going for, because the story suddenly becomes much more 'thrilling' (haha, get it?) soon after. I think it's also somewhat funny. The image of a fist knocking into an alarm clock with too much force. It could also be very cliche. Ah well. It happens.

Regardless, the actual writing exercise is to write ten starting sentences. I'm not supposed to worry about a larger story or turning the sentences into anything, I just need to write them. Then if possible, I should try to write a starting sentence every day. I suppose I will attempt this. Anyways, here's my ten starting lines. Let me know if anything catches your eye, and you think it could be a real story.

He knew all was lost when the assassin's sword swiped the Chosen one's head clean off.

Little Billy knew the monster would kill him one day, but his parents wouldn't listen.

"Well, you really fucked up this time, you know that?"

Terry really thought everything was going fine until he was shot in the stomach.

The old saying was false, dead men did talk, you just had to listen right.

Sometimes, when Johnny sat in that dark damp cellar for awhile with the lights off, he thought he could hear voices talking, talking to him and telling him terrible awful things.

Damien didn't know he was dead until he stood over his own corpse and said "Shit," though nobody could hear him of course.

There was always a black cat watching Jerry when he left and entered his apartment building and for some reason, it was starting to freak him out a little.

The howling was loud and excited, as if proclaiming to the world, We have killed and will kill again. 

When Terry saw the truck, she knew it wasn't going to stop in time. 

Well there, there's ten starting sentences. Some of them I even quite like and think could be the start of a story that even now circulates in my mind, and I'm sure will continue to circulate even as I'm sleeping at night.

There's exercise number one finished. If anyone else would like to perform this exercise and send me the results, I'd love to see them and tell you what I think. You don't have to do ten or anything, send me as many or few as you want. I'd love to put them up here as well, if that would be alright with you. It'd be nice to see other people trying these things while I'm doing it. Thanks for reading.

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