Sunday, July 5, 2009

Starting in the Middle

When I first decided to publish my writing, about four years before I completed anything remotely worthy of submission, I had the opportunity to submit a writing sample to Robert Sawyer. Mr. Sawyer, a prominent Canadian Science fiction writer, had agreed to be writer in residence at the Merrill Sci-Fi library. As part of his duties, he offered a manuscript workshop for sample chapters. I was fortunate enough to make the list of people who had their "Chapter One" read by Sawyer and attend a short one-on-one with him to discuss the piece's strengths and many weaknesses. After a warning of hamstringing any potential success by not sufficiently proofreading my work, Mr. Sawyer stepped back and became a bit more philosophical. One element that stood out (other than the importance of proper grammar) was that good writing requires a hook right at the beginning—engaging the reader by throwing them into the middle of the action. This thought was explained further in his essay on writing exciting beginnings, which states that the reader's decision to complete a novel/short story/essay is determined by whether the first few sentences grab them; back story being a matter for later chapters. Think of the image of a bookstore shopper flipping through books, looking for a reason to buy. If Chapter one is not enticing, then the book goes back on the shelf and some craftier writer's tome is taken to the cash register. (I believe Stephen King has also made a similar comment)

On further consideration, this piece of his advice didn't ring true to me. I'm a plodder when it comes to reading— more a hiker than a highway driver, preferring to slowly make my way through the woods to various checkpoints, rather than zipping from viewpoint to viewpoint down a highway, only lingering at stops that draw me in. While highway drivers makes snap judgments as to whether a stop has enough for them (entertainment, beauty, etc.), hikers have ample time to consider their pace as they follow a trail. Both accept they will see a lot of substandard scenery (if there is such a thing), yet to the hiker that's part of the experience, while to the highway driver it's an annoying fact of life.

The result of my plotting is to have read some rather "boring" books, or "late bloomers" that didn't pick up until a halfway through the second volume. I must confess these experiences are personal badges of honor—a claim to have beaten "unreadable" books. I still remember toiling through Voltaire's Bastards by John Ralston Saul over one summer and the satisfaction I felt at my university friend's amazed look as I gave the borrowed book back. I admit only parts of Saul's arguments are still with me, an academic fog of philosophy and history. The experience was similar when I read The Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawkings, yet I believe I'm better for having finishing these volumes, even if they are only flotsam and jetsam in the ocean of my mind.

Although I feel completely comfortable plodding along in my reading, I have reservations applying this method to writing. Unsure whether one can write anyway they want (assuming solid grammar) and that publishing reality is largely a matter of taste. Dan Brown 's Da Vinci Code and Michael Crichton's Timeline are more waterfall tourist traps—a large parking lot, playground, ice cream stand—than the long winding trail through the Purple Valley on a clear, crisp day that Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa,
Black's FDR, or Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler are. They're both valid places and it's the traveler that chooses the one that fits their needs. The mentality "that anything goes" (de gustibus non est disputandum) sounds Long Tail and wonderful, but I'm only slightly relativist and the Absolutist in me doubts that there's no value system that exists to compare the two types of reading.—with the underlying assumption being one must be superior to the other. All of this harks back to my great fear that I'm seeing what I want to see rather than what is actually there (eluded to often in the Sherlock Holmes mythos—more concretely in Michael Chabon's "Final Solution" or the "Seven percent solution"—and large volumes of religious/political debate material).

I have often been paralyzed by the whole dilemma, leading to many scenarios of no roads taken (to twist a Frost). Two items in recent history have pulled me out of this self-made crisis. The first is a loving partner who believes in small practical steps towards a goal; which doesn't lend to the philosophizing of writing or grand thinking when the writing isn't getting done—or to properly worry about the state of the market, one requires having a stake in the market to worry about. The second is an essay by Clive James discussing the hierarchy of trash and quality; two separate triangles that share the same base. It doesn't matter which triangle you're on as long as you move upwards—it's not that what you write (trash or art) but that you write well (high trash or high art). The key to well writing finding its proper home is for it to be finished, which I have come to realize is more important than getting started.

The Chapter one that Robert Sawyer reviewed stills lives in an electronic file folder on my computer, the annotated hard copy lost during a move or spring cleaning. I corrected the grammar to the best of my abilities and I think of the story often; more recently with thoughts of how to complete the piece that debating how to correct chapter one. Many years later, I've come to realize that it's not chapter one that is important but rather the final one. It doesn't matter whether you start in the middle, it's more important that you finish.