Episode 3 — Let’s Start the Story
So we have a working title. Great. In a sense, that’s a beginning. So let’s stop and congratulate ourselves on beginning the process. Now we turn our attention to beginning the story.
Raymond Carver, a writer I think everyone should read at some point, talked about short stories being glimpses of life that turned into stories:
V.S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is ‘something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.’ Notice the ‘glimpse’ part of this. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse gives life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we’re lucky — that word again — have even further ranging consequences and meaning. The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things — like no one else sees them.
I’d argue that every story is based on a glimpse. Whether you’re Tostoy writing War and Peace or Lydia Davis writing “A Story of Stolen Salamis”, it is my belief that every story starts with that glimpse, something out of the corner of the eye (or mind) that resonates with the writer. It could be a sentence, an image, a chair sitting a bit wonky, or a yell from a balcony above. Some person, place, thing or event that sparks a little “Hey!” in your mind.
When that happens, and it will, write it down. Even if you have to borrow a napkin and a pen from the corner store you just walked by. Those little “Hey!” moments are the ones you want to write about. It may take 400 words or 400 pages, but they’re like a seed you found on the sidewalk. You don’t really know what kind of seed it is, but even the smallest seed can turn into a mustard tree (yeah, you know the reference).
With your glimpse in mind, take some time to launch your story. Write the first sentence, but make it launch the story. I suggest that a sentence like “The moon was large over Sargis Bay that day.” isn’t launching anything. Sure it’s setting a time (presumably evening or night) and a place (Sargis Bay), but so what? Anything can happen after such a sentence. Hercule Poriot could come around the corner pretending to sip a martini just as much as Lassie could come bounding along the sand with a handkerchief in her mouth. It’s a beginning, but it’s not a launch.
I like to try to have a sentence that at least hints at something significant in the story. The reader probably won’t know, from one sentence, what the whole story is (except if it’s a Lydia Davis story), but in my view, it is a good thing when, after reading the story, the reader can come back to the first sentence and go “Aha!” and feel like the first sentence is just as fresh after reading the story as it was before the story was read.
Again, we write the launch with intention. We may not know exactly where the story will end up, but we have that glimpse and we are working on getting that glimpse recorded.
Here’s my first sentence:
We were supposed to keep the rabbit’s cage closed.
For this week, write that first sentence. If you write more, great! But let’s launch this thing.