CRAFT: Beginnings (Fiction)

DISCLAIMER: This is only one of many ways to construct tribal lays.

DISCLAIMER2: I may not know what I’m doing, but at least I know why I’m doing it. (Analysis takes place after the writing; I’m not consciously thinking, “Now let’s set the scene . . . now let’s tell them who is the parent.”)

Here’s how I would explain why I did what I did in the opening paragraphs of the short story “Clownshoes.” Original text of paragraph is interspersed with bracketed explanations. Those of you who hate parentheses and asides should scroll down to the next entry–nothing to see here.

My brother and I are begging Mom to let us wait in the car. [Sets the tone. Viewpoint character is young enough that “Mom” still runs the show. We get the feeling there is a reason for this reluctance to get out of the car. Default “suburban street” setting is probably being assumed by most readers.]

“Come on, just this once,” Tyler says. [Ah, this is the brother.]

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She adjusts her striped Afro wig and honks her round red rubber nose. “Besides, I need you for my bits.” [OMG, she is dressed as a . . . clown?]

“Your bits, Ma’am?” he says in his Elvis voice. Making a face, he tosses his backpack across his shoulder into the back seat, where it skims my knees. [This tells you that Ty is kind of a drama king and class clown who likes to act out and can do voices. He is also the dominant sibling over the viewpoint character. Backpack tells you they just came from, school, maybe?]

“Watch it.” I kick the olive green pack onto the floor on top of his matching jacket. He’s into Army surplus for some stupid reason. Probably all about turning thirteen and Becoming A Real Man, big whoop. There’s an up-side to being eleven and still sane without the hormone rush. [Ha! I sneaked in their ages. Note that we still don’t know if the POV character is another boy. . . .]

“CheyAnne,” Mom says to me in the rear view mirror. Typical. She always comes after ME for stuff that’s HIS fault. “You two have to be there for the card tricks, and if I need to choose someone from the audience.” She glares at me as if I was the one who’d mocked her. “This gig pays our bills, so why not relax and enjoy it.” [Aha! CheyAnne is a girl with a weird hippie-style name. This indicates the mother is one of Those Types. Also, the eternal fencing battle between mother and teenage daughter has already begun. We also now understand that she’s a clown who does parties for children, not a circus or carnival employee.]

“And think of England.” Tyler makes his voice a quavering Julia Child. He ought to be a voice actor. [Just underlining how Tyler feels about the dang parties and that he will fight being a part of them. At the end, spoiler alert, he defends his mom when an older kid mocks the idea of being a clown. So that’s not exactly a character CHANGE, but it reveals a deeper layer behind the character.]

Mom ignores that, and we all slam out of the Kia. Tyler heads around to help me drag her trunk out of the hatchback. This is a birthday party, so she’ll be using the full arsenal of tricks, sleight of hand, and slapstick idiocy the likes of which Jerry Lewis would be embarrassed to resort to. [Now we’ve got the suspicions confirmed–it’s a kiddie party, and middle schoolers are totally NOT into this stuff. Oy! A Kia means they aren’t exactly rich, to some people. It’s almost a clown car . . . to snobs, anyway.]

SO! Instead of being a random bunch of typing that I did just to irritate you, you now see that there was method to the madness. Does it work? I don’t know. But I wanted to show that there should be reasons for what you are writing in your opening, beyond just “hook them.” There should be some way for readers to clue in pretty quickly about the age and gender of the narrator and of the other characters, and about the setting they’re in. I know Ursula LeGuin or somebody important like that said to start 100 miles underground on the day before the end of the world and DON’T TELL THEM, but I think we DO need some kind of hook to hang things on or we will be too disoriented to continue reading. I also like to put in a couple of the characters’ important quirks, by implication or just by stating them. For example, Tyler has a voice talent for mocking, and the mom is convinced that her kids should participate happily in the “shows.” These will be important later on.

This is a literary story in the sense that it’s not a fast-paced genre thing, and the plot is not the main reason to read it. You probably will want to write genre stories, because you have some hope of selling those. (*grin*)

You won’t necessarily do things this way. But it’s one way to do things.

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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