I read some writing advice by Kelly Sue Deconnick and she mentions how some writers have a certain theme in their work. For example, Neil Gaiman’s tendency to explore the theme of storytelling, or Warren Ellis’ tendency to explore technology. It made me think about Stephen King writing about writers, which is the one everyone tends to use an example, sometimes to in a mocking tone. I don’t think Stephen King should be mocked, but it makes me worry about when something that feels like a “style” or “voice” can turn into a trope. J.J. Abram’s lens flares were cool until someone pointed them out, then memes happened. Joss Whedon’s quips may have been groundbreaking during Buffy, but by the time they hit The Avengers they wore me down.
For starters, I guess, memes will always happen. It’s easy to poke fun at the Oscar winner from behind a computer while reaching for your Doritos. Maybe it just keeps the universe nicely balanced.
Secondly, perhaps having someone point out that thing you do makes you realise you’ve been doing it more as a crutch than as a sign of distinction, and you push yourself accordingly. Abrams seems to have cooled it with the lens flares. Anne Rice ran in the opposite direction and started editing her own books…I dare you to read one.
During a writing workshop at university for short pieces of fiction, someone pointed out to me that I always start my stories with the person’s name. It’s always “Susan looked out of the window”. (Susan is also my go-to name for every female character, what’s that about?). This led me to obsessively try and start the story differently, which has led me to a stump. I am stumped. I am thinking too much about it and practically stopped writing.
I’ve tried starting with a piece of dialogue, but that seems so visual, it almost doesn’t belong in prose. Then you have to do the whole “…said Fred” thing and your opening line is suddenly pedestrian.
I looked at one of my favourite writers, Scott Snyder. He always seems to start his stories with a historical fact, or what passes for a historical fact in his fictional world. His Batman run which makes me want to weep endlessly with joy and blood tears at the sheer majesty of it starts with “Every Saturday, the Gotham Gazette includes a small lifestyles piece called “Gotham Is””. He expands from an anecdote into setting up what Gotham is. He goes from newspaper clipping to city to explain that this is a story about Gotham, and Gotham is a piece of shit city. It’s Gotham, not Batman, that is the main character in Snyder’s story. Genius. That’s his thing though, and he does it extremely well. I want to read his short fiction collection to see what he does with prose.
I can look at the greats, because who better? Toni Morrison starts Beloved with “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom”. What is a 124? Why would a baby have venom? Aha, we’re in.
Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” is forever stuck in my head. It plays on a loop every time I walk through London, look out the window, or buy myself flowers. I can’t get rid of it. Literary earworm. It starts with Mrs. Dalloway, which is also the title of the book, the main character, intentions are set. You’re also about to join her for a walk, so I guess you should get to know her pretty quickly.
JK Rowling has “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”. Characters, location, focalised narrative. Did anyone remember Harry Potter starts out with the lines “Mr and Mrs Dursley”? If you’ve picked up a book called Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s (get over it, America) Stone you know normal will not abound. She also starts with names, maybe I’m not on the wrong track here.
I wonder how many times the first line gets scratched out. Except you need a first line, crude as it may be, for everything else to start.
“As a distant planet was destroyed by old age, a scientist placed his infant within a hastily devised space-ship, launching it toward Earth!”
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
There’s probably enough clumsy exposition here to make Robert McKee’s head spin, but damn if they didn’t start something beautiful each time.
I guess I’ll begin at the beginning…