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Eleventh of October

‘Many people – many nations – can find themselves believing, more or less consciously, that “every stranger is an enemy”. For the most part, this conviction lies buried in the mind like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and is not the basis of a system of thought. But when this happens, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, stands the Lager [camp]. It is the product of a conception of the world carried to its logical consequences with rigorous consistency; as long as the conception exists, the consequences remain to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister signal of danger.’

—Primo Levi, preface to If This Is a Man, translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf

 

 

Six years and six days ago, it was 3 October 2013.

Just before dawn, an immigrant boat capsized some 500 yards off the shores of Lampedusa, the Italian island that marks Europe’s southernmost point. Three hundred sixty-eight people died in that shipwreck. The sea continued to disgorge dead bodies for days and days afterwards. The smallest of those bodies was a new-born baby. The tiny body was still attached to the mother’s corpse by its umbilical cord.

In the days immediately following the shipwreck, the island is besieged by hordes of news reporters and politicians. Powerful figures from Italian and European institutions parade before the television cameras. ‘Never again,’ they swear. They make solemn vows, they shake hands with fierce intent, they pose for the customary photos, they send out tweets to their followers, then they leave the island.

Three days ago, it was 7 October 2019.

There’s been another shipwreck, the latest in an endless succession.

Thirteen corpses are recovered.

All of them women.

There are twenty or so immigrants still lost at sea, eight of them children.

The search continues, but those bodies remain missing.

Sometimes the sea gives back, sometimes it keeps.

Yesterday it was 10 October 2019.

A funeral mass is held in church for the thirteen women.

Not a single prominent Italian official attends, not a single European official. Not the mayor of Lampedusa, not a single representative of the Sicilian region, not a single member of Italy’s national government, not a single representative of the European Union. No international TV news crews, no foreign correspondents.

It’s been six years, and death has become an annoyance.

 

It’s a sign of the times: children separated from their mothers and fathers, brothers separated from sisters, individuals separated from their homes. By now, they’re reduced to numbers, statistics, ciphers. They try to make it across borders, for any of a number of reasons: war, famine, religious creed, simple yearning. There are countless obstacles: deserts, walls, barbed wire, the sea and the sheer cruelty of their fellow man. Their bodies bear detailed accounts of the journey: wounds, mutilations and fractures tell the tale of the harrowing violence they’ve suffered. Examinations performed on women who arrive in Europe by sea at the Lampedusa medical clinic confirm that nearly all of them have been raped.

Things we still don’t know, and that those bodies can’t tell us: how many times a day is a given woman raped, for how many days running, during her exodus across the desert, and during her confinement in a Libyan refugee camp?

 

In this diseased Europe of ours, people increasingly give in to fear, delivering themselves into the trammels of terror, allowing themselves to be devoured by hatred. They sense danger everywhere, they live with jangled nerves. They’re so overwhelmed by anxiety that having an enemy to fear has become a physical need. On the other side of the border, just over the sea, there are fathers, mothers, and children who have just been separated. These are men and women, girls and boys, toddlers and infants who carry traumas within them – traumas as vast and gigantic as the briny deep. And yet they continue their journey. After all, where else can they go, if not straight ahead? They take on the desert. They defy the prison camps in Libya. They venture across the sea. They display a fierce attachment to life that this aging, cowardly Europe has long since forgotten.

To them, life is still something sacred.

In Lampedusa, the mothers’ bodies arrived three days ago, ready to be laid in their coffins.

It was October 7, 2019.

Their children are still missing, lost among the swells of the sea.
The separation of loved ones is one of the statistics that allow us to understand the contemporary world.

 

Separation, flight, a sea to cross.

The same old story, told again and again.

A young Phoenician woman escapes from the city of Tyre, crossing the desert until she reaches its end. Now she looks out on the facing sea. A white bull appears, kneels down, and offers her his back, turning himself into a boat. The young woman crosses the Mediterranean Sea and lands on Crete.

The young woman’s name is Europa.

This is our origin.

We are the children of a sea-crossing by boat.

 

Image © European Space Agency

The post Eleventh of October appeared first on Granta Magazine.

Camelot

A typical child feels dangerously. Ideally the typical carer of this typical child creates a space where such dangerous feelings are not unacceptable: they can be expressed without too much humiliation or bodily harm. Such a caring carer sets meaningful and predictable boundaries. They absorb the most difficult of the child’s difficult feelings without the child becoming shadowed with guilt for requiring such care. Ideally the carer and the child, or carers and children, who share a loving, difficult, typical household contain one another, psychologists say, like some kind of garment that is also a wardrobe.

 

🗡

 

(All C needs to do is make it out of his bedroom and along the landing to his father’s bedroom. C’s father lies inside a colossal black tulip that is carnivorous. C must free his father from the tulip’s mouth before his father is digested. The great disaster is that C’s bed is soaked with piss and his father does not enjoy changing the sheets. Another great disaster is that between C and his father are his assailants and yet C’s fellow knights are at their leisure, as though the battle is won. It is possible that the knights do not see C’s assailants because his assailants are precisely the same size and shape as the bedroom. He attempts to explain this to the knights but what comes out of his mouth is C’s own language, which they do not understand. Lancelot is virtuous and pure but useless as chewed paper. Galahad is what he imagines meat tastes like. C imagines dancing with Galahad at the feast where Galahad eats all of the meat. The dance is geometric and intimate while nobody touches and he feels hard and yielding at the same time, the way that the grey trunk of Galahad’s horse is composed of clouds. C has spiky flowers in his hair, which is the way Galahad likes it. Galahad is a dark machine that dances like a father who is happy. The whole scene has the texture of a rug made from a furry animal, luxurious and sinister and C feels suddenly responsible for a death. C retreats from the awfulness of this feeling then slaps himself furiously on his stinging thighs in an attempt to bring himself back to the surface. He waits beside a mirror until the knight is tired from all of his eating and the long joust and the weight of his excellence and eventually falls asleep beside his blue plumes. C looks at the sleeping knight’s armour. He trembles at what he is compelled to do. He draws courage from his extraordinary results in his recent exam on plant biology. There are twenty-five layers of armour and when C is dressed finally he falls over with the weight into the mud on the bedroom floor. To his great relief Louise Nurding is too busy learning her lyrics to notice. How on earth does she remember the words while moving her legs and her arms in the ways that are correct? C cannot even coordinate himself to explain plant biology to his father while eating vegetable stew and making sure that his father does not cry out of his eyes. Louise mistakes the shadowy movements of his assailants for the beat. It is possible, it occurs to him, that an assailant is hiding inside Louise Nurding. He begins to cry. But it is as though everyone is looking over his shoulder at someone else who is the one who is actually crying. He is glad to feel his soft carrot-like ribs heave inside his armour. He thinks of the beached whales that he knows are blown up by explosives. He would rather they replanted the whales in the part of the rainforest that his father purchased on his behalf, the only part that will remain intact by the time C becomes a man. He thinks of all the specks of himself and of his father that have brushed off his skin and off his father’s skin and scattered around the house. He imagines that the furniture is saddened by the specks when they land. The bookshelves, with their thunderous clouds of dust, are saddest of all. They are so sad that they spend all day laughing. It is only at night that the sadness of the furniture, a hilarious daytime sadness, becomes a nocturnal rage. Like a bowling ball C’s own rage is returned to him from an obscure hole in the ground, jumpy and ready to knock down all in its way. He remembers his mission. The door of his bedroom is a horizon dot. It is indistinguishable from the column of enemy infantry cresting the black hill. He will need to be armed. He crawls to the corner where he stores his sword. For his thirteenth birthday he asked his father for a sword. This was on account of his terrible disappointment with his judo apprenticeship. It was becoming apparent that Big Mark with the handlebar moustache and the glossy shins was never going to reveal what a man truly was capable of. Manhood, C knows, is an invitation to the enemies. If he is going to be a man and defend himself from the assailants of all men, he concluded, either they would all have to wear judogi and be patient while his weak fingers found a good hold, or he was going to have to supplement his natural defences with a weapon. There is a great deal at stake. His legs sting both with piss and where he has slapped them. He must extract what is left of his father from the tulip’s acid. He picks up the sword. Its rusted blade lives in a black holster with black tassels like an anemone. It reeks of death or the charity shop. A battalion of intricate lead figurines assemble at his flanks. He painted, every night for a month, their livery pink as the inside of his father’s mouth. Since Lancelot is too busy in the mirror and Galahad is asleep these pink warriors must serve as C’s army. They hail him with their tiny collective voice. He finds their enthusiasm and smallness unbearably moving in his eyes. For the first time an optimism over saving his father. The moment is ripe for an assault on the bedroom door. But there is a problem. What if he is captured? He himself would never torture his enemies on account of the chivalric code. He cannot be sure that his assailants would be so merciful. He has been practising levitation so that when he is captured and strapped to the spiked chair that his enemies reserve for their greatest foes his own weight will not destroy him. That is the canniness of vegetarianism. He himself is made of a cork-like material that is hollower than the other humans. His body has a consistency which is more like Perceval, who has blown in through the open window and who studies the framed photograph of Aston Villa and chews gum. Perceval picks up the claret-and-blue football from the floor with drooling curiosity and brings it to his mouth. It bounces off his teeth and lands near C’s most frightening assailant, the bookshelf. C is determined to resist these books, whatever it is in them that leaves his father drifting like a plastic bag through the house, not remotely beautiful. C realises that Perceval’s stupidity provides a distraction which is an opportunity to strike. By now his father is more flower than human. If he cannot make it to his father’s room in the morning C will find nothing but a pile of bones and pollen in the sheets. C’s own room is streaked with blood. He knows that it is Louise Nurding’s blood. But Louise’s body remains immaculate. C begins to suspect that the catastrophe is taking place not in his father’s bedroom but in his own bedroom. It is the quality of a human body that is called mass, a quality that a body cannot not possess, that pushes the body down everywhere there is contact with a surface of infinitely sharp unchivalric spikes. He makes the brave decision to shed Galahad’s armour. Now he is light and light enough to make a run for the bedroom door. He has cried a dry puddle on his face. Louise holds her arms towards him. He must deny himself and Louise the bliss of that embrace. He knows, suddenly, that the urine each night is precisely the same as the acid that the tulip secretes to dissolve the body of his father, even though it is not on a biology exam. He runs towards the door with one single aim, which is to climb inside the tulip that is carnivorous.)

 

🗡

 

I am particularly susceptible to the pleasures of prologues, epistles to the reader, characters introduced only to tell stories about other people, pilgrims passing the time with what you are about to read. I like the feeling (of being misled).

To protect myself from it I placed it inside a frame.

In doing so I discovered C’s childish misapprehension (that the father required the son’s care) has grown up to become the truth. The father is dying. The child, of course, has moved away. He has children of his own.

The story opens with C’s father wondering how to break the news to his son, who he imagines, with fear and hope, is asleep in the next room, imagining his father.

‘All C needs to do is make it out of his bedroom,’ he begins, and the child is placed back inside the father (who is inside the child). We are safe.

 

Image © Bill Badzo

The post Camelot appeared first on Granta Magazine.

5 Goals for Making Your Anthology the Best That It Can Be

Marika Lindholm, co-editor of the new book We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor offers 5 tips to creating a more appealing and successful anthology.


Anthology Writing Tips

I recently had the honor of coediting the anthology We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor with Cheryl Dumesnil, Domenica Ruta, and Katherine Shonk. As editors of an anthology aimed at giving voice to a diverse community of solo moms, we plunged into our labor of love with passion and determination. Along the winding road to publication, we learned that anthologies are often overlooked or viewed as less worthy than other genres. Although many anthologies transcend this reputation in sales and literary merit, publishers and booksellers often say that readers buy books because of their dedication to a specific author, or perceive compilations as potentially containing more misses than hits. Inspired rather than defeated by this information, we set out to compile an honest representation of solo motherhood through powerful essays and poems—each one of them, in our view, a “hit.” We wanted the reader to be blown away by the writing, and by the heart and the breadth of experience shared by more than 70 solo mom writers.

Our dedication to We Got This is now being rewarded with media interest, a growing audience, and positive reviews, including a coveted starred review from Kirkus Reviews. If you have an anthology in your heart or are already working on one, don’t be daunted by the fact that they’re not the darlings of the literary world. Instead, focus on these five goals to ensure that your anthology gets the respect it deserves.

  1. Love your content. Search far and wide for content that will make you proud to have your name attached to it in print. You need to love the material enough to defend it. When searching for essays and poems for We Got This, we cast a very wide net that included well-known and up-and-coming writers. We scoured the web and spread the word to our personal and professional networks that we were looking for original writing by solo moms. We also revisited published work to find our favorites, including work by deceased writers, such as Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and Ruth Stone. We found plenty of content to fall in love with, then gave ourselves time to determine and defend each poem and essay’s value to the anthology. Some content, such as a hilarious excerpt from Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, was a favorite from the start, while others, including “Dad’s Day,” Lenlee Keep’s essay about honoring an ex who died from alcoholism, were last-minute discoveries. Now, of course, we can’t imagine our anthology without these voices.
  2. Aim for a few literary rock stars. When people see that we have essays by Mary Karr, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Alexander, Ariel Gore, and other well-established writers, they often ask if we’re friends with these luminaries. We wish that were the case, but the truth is more pragmatic: We persistently reached out to their agents, publishers, and publicists to get permission to reprint their work. Once we got through to the individual or organization in charge of rights, we were rarely turned down. However, securing rights can be cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive! For some of the big hitters, we had to secure not only U.S. rights, but also rights from England and South Africa. Permissions can add up, so figure out a budget in advance. We were lucky that some writers were kind enough to give us rights at no cost, based on their belief in our book. And a special shout-out to the poets who contributed: Overwhelmingly, they gave us rights for free. Shipping books to all our contributors was incredibly poignant because we knew that up-and-coming solo mom writers would be thrilled to see their names among literary rock stars.
  3. Be a ruthless editor. This tip is fairly straightforward, but should not be underestimated. Don’t be afraid to edit original content and excerpts to manage the overall page length and keep your reader’s interest. We were particularly determined to keep each contribution short because busy solo moms don’t have time to read for long chunks of time. The book is designed to pick up for quick inspiration. It might seem presumptuous that we chose very short excerpts from writers like the brilliant Mary Karr, but that’s what had to be done. Our edits were not always popular with contributors, but we did our best to communicate the larger goal. And we believe that the finished product is a testament to the value of editing for the greater good.
  4. Focus on representation and placement. It’s easy to become so immersed in your content that you overlook glaring omissions, in terms writers’ stories and identities. But editors need to be self-aware of representation to achieve an honest expression of their mission. We wanted to represent the diverse array of solo mom voices, yet even late into the compiling process, we found that we’d neglected a particular perspective. Focus and effort were required to find writing that represented the rich diversity of the solo mom community. Once we’d gathered all their stories, we ordered them by chapter in a way that made thematic sense. We didn’t cluster all divorced moms or all African American moms together, but instead divided our chapters around thematic experiences and made sure that each chapter represented a range of circumstances, whether it was a mom with a deployed husband, a lesbian mom’s dating story, or even a mom losing her partner to mental illness. Our quest for representation ensured that We Got This is honest and powerful.
  5. Embrace collaboration. I was incredibly fortunate to be part of a dream team of editors. With each of us bringing unique experience and expertise to the project, we were definitively better than the sum of our parts. Any anthology, even one that has a single editor, will benefit from being intentional about collaboration, since collaborating with contributors and editors at your publishing house is necessary. For instance, although we were determined to edit ruthlessly, we still communicated with our authors so they were aware of the process. Four editors might sound like an organizational nightmare, but it was quite the opposite, for a number of reasons. First, there was so much work that it was great to divide up responsibilities. Second, as a collaborative team, the book’s best interest always surpassed personal opinions. Finally, as collaborators with diverse opinions and skills, we complemented one another, to the benefit of our book. A collaborative spirit carried us through the challenging parts, made our book better, and now remains one of the most inspiring outcomes of our journey. Thanks to the relationships we formed with each other and our authors, our contributors are enthusiastically promoting We Got This on social media and their own websites. They’re also raising their hands to read at our events, which are proving to be a true celebration of the solo mom community. Our anthology belongs to every solo mom who contributed to it, and that’s the way it should be.

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For ideas about how to create a fiction anthology, check out this WD article.


Writing the Personal Essay 101: FundamentalsHave personal experiences you want to share? WD University’s Writing the Personal Essay 101: Fundamentals will teach you how to avoid the dreaded responses of “so what?” and “I guess you had to be there” by utilizing sensory details, learn to trust your writing intuitions, and develop a skilled internal editor to help with revision. Register today!

The post 5 Goals for Making Your Anthology the Best That It Can Be by Marika Lindholm appeared first on Writer's Digest.

A Summary and Analysis of Aesop’s ‘The Frogs Asking for a King’ Fable

‘The Frogs Asking for a King’, like Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the emperor’s new clothes, is a children’s story that also carries a strong political message. Often included in editions of Aesop’s fables, ‘The Frogs Asking for a King’ is summarised below, accompanied by a few words of […]

The post A Summary and Analysis of Aesop’s ‘The Frogs Asking for a King’ Fable appeared first on Interesting Literature.

A Short Analysis of Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘We Real Cool’

‘We Real Cool’ is probably Gwendolyn Brooks’s best-known poem. Written in 1959 and published the following year in her poetry collection The Bean Eaters, it has been widely taught in schools and anthologised on many occasions. You can read ‘We Real Cool’ here before proceeding to our analysis of Brooks’s […]

The post A Short Analysis of Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘We Real Cool’ appeared first on Interesting Literature.

Vintage WD: The First Hundred Words Are the Hardest

This article about the importance of the opening paragraph of your fiction writing first appeared in the October 1921 issue of The Writer’s Digest, as it was then known. It was written by Arthur Leeds.


Opening Paragraph | The First Hundred Words

If you’re familiar with the current “gag,” “The first hundred years are the hardest,” this being a certain humorist’s ironic “crack” at married life, you’ll know what inspired the above title. But, in all seriousness, for the beginner in fiction writing, the first hundred words or so—they may represent the first paragraph, or the first two or three paragraphs—undoubtedly are the hardest, or, at any rate, decidedly the most important in the entire story.

“Rats!” remarks the “wise”—and slangy—beginner. He has read his O. Henry and all the other successful authors, and he knows much better than that. He is thinking of the hundred-and-one smashing, dramatic endings in stories he has enjoyed, and he is absolutely convinced that a bang-up, hit-’em-between-the-eyes “final curtain” is far and away the most important thing in any story, but especially in a short story.

Well, live and learn, profit by experience, collect the rejection slips until you are able to see the light, and know the value of carefully-planned, “punchful” beginnings for your stories!


For more contemporary advice about writing the opening paragraph, check out this article by Fred White from the January 2018 issue of WD.


Why—on the “first nights” of certain plays—do we see this or that well-known dramatic critic getting up and leaving the theater after sitting through just one act, or two acts at the most, and hurrying away to write up a none too complimentary review of the performance? Isn’t the answer obvious? The first half of the first act—which is just about the equivalent to the first page or two of a fiction narrative—has failed to catch and hold his interest; and the dramatist of today who can’t “get” his audience in the first fifteen minutes after the rise of the curtain on Act I, very seldom has a play that will atone for a weak opening scene as the play swings into the second or third act. Consequently, the case-hardened critic is “cold” from the very opening of the play, and—working on the sound-enough theory that what starts off poorly will finish the same way—merely keeps his seat long enough to become familiar with the “work” of the principal players, and will acquire a rough idea of the plot before making a quick get-away preparatory to knocking out his criticism for the morning edition.

And the equally case-hardened fiction editor works—in nine out of ten cases, and almost always in the case of reading the work of the unknown writer—along exactly similar lines. As the editor of one of the so-called “Big Four” magazines once remarked, he doesn’t have to eat a whole boiled egg in order to tell that it is bad. Nor does the trained editor have to read a whole manuscript in order to know that it will be hopelessly uninteresting to his readers.

At a recent meeting of our New York organization, The Writers’ Club, a prominent fiction editor asserted that, whatever his office “readers” might do, he himself seldom found it necessary to read beyond the first page of a story to be able to tell whether he wanted it or not; and, he added, it was very often unnecessary to read more than one or two paragraphs.

Remember, this article is frankly addressed to the beginner in fiction writing; but even some fairly advanced authors fail to recognize, as they should, the supreme importance of the first paragraph or two.

Flora Klickman, who is both an editor and a fiction writer, remarks, in “The Lure of the Pen”—a book which is avowedly “aimed” at “would-be authors”:

“Have you ever read a story that opened, ‘It was a glorious day in June,’ followed by a page of blue sky, balmy breezes, humming bees, not a leaf stirred, and scent of roses heavy in the air? Of course you have. We all have. That glorious day in June is one of the most precious perennials of the story-writer’s stock-in-trade.”

            Naturally, the untrained writer follows the line of least resistance, and the “glorious day in June” or “the sun, slowly sinking in the west,” is the inevitable result. But study the work of the experienced writer; even when, for good and sufficient reasons, he deems it advisable to devote his first paragraph or two to “atmosphere” or “local color,” he manages, and with no extra effort—due to the fact that he is experienced—to “get” his reader even with first few words of description. Take, for example—selecting the first old magazine that I find lying beside my desk—the opening two paragraphs of Achmed Abdullah’s short story, “Light,” in the All-Story for May 18, 1918. There are just 112 words:

“Beneath the sooty velvet of the New York night, Tompkins Square was a blotch of lonely, mean sadness.

“No light loungers there waiting for a bluecoat’s hickory to tickle their thin, patched soles; no wizened news vendor spreading the remnants of his printed wares about him and figuring out the difference between gain on papers sold and discount on those returned unsold; no Greek hawker considering the advisability of beating the high cost of living by supping on those figs which he had not been able to sell because of their antiquity; no maudlin drunk mistaking the blur in his whisky-soaked brain for the happy twilight of the foggy green isle.”

          It is an “atmosphere” opening; but it is also an opening that compels the reader to go on. Captain Abdullah can do it; Fannie Hurst can do it; any trained writer can do it. But let the novice beware until he has learned the trick—and until his name means enough to the editor to let that autocrat of the magazine office know what will follow will be well worthy of his close attention.

The first thing to remember is that even the experienced author of today, and even when he is writing a long story must get and hold the reader’s attention from the first paragraph. I have as complete files of Harper’s, Century, Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s (Magazine—and even the old Scribner’s Monthly, which in 1881 was sold to the Century Company and became the present Century Magazine) as are to be found in the larger public libraries; and I take a great interest in going over the old short stories and serials, many of them by writers who, famous in their day, are now remembered by only a few of the older fiction readers. Gone are the leisurely openings, the long-drawn-out descriptive paragraphs that our fathers and mothers stood for (slang is a handy mode of expression, eh, what?). We have just as good writing, and just as good writers today, but the style is oh! so different. And in the Rome of present-day literature, we—you, I, all of us—must do as the Romans do or be left at the post. And you can’t be left at the post and keep up with the slowly-descending high-cost of living. Not to speak of getting ahead in the game, which is what really should spur you on, all pecuniary considerations left aside.

So let’s get ahead with our study of the attention-getting opening.

One thing must be avoided—and the beginner, in a wild scramble to outdo the editor, may easily overlook this point: You cannot afford merely to start off with what may be a jaded-reader-proof beginning, keep up the paced for a page or two, and then allow your yarn to “peter out.” You’ve run up against that sort of thing in the movies, no doubt. The first couple of hundred feet or so is all swift-moving, interesting action; then we get several hundred feet of close-ups of the star in various poses, beautiful “locations” or “sets” that delight the eye but do absolutely nothing toward making the plot move; and the result is about the same as the play with the dull opening scene that drove away the dramatic critic.

Nor can you—this second is a deadly sin!—afford to write an opening paragraph or two which promise a plot development or a situation which never comes to pass, merely because you are determined to hit the reader between the eyes at the very beginning. No special example is necessary in connection with the warning against the first kind of opening; you know what I mean, and common sense is your only guide. In connection with the second offense against the reader, it may be said that very few trained writers are ever guilty of it, and when you do run across an example of it, you almost feel that a printer’s error is responsible for the “false lead.” Nevertheless, I  have never quite forgiven the celebrated French writer of detective-mystery stories, Albert Boissière, for one misleading word in the first paragraph of his really remarkable novel, “The Missing Finger” (translated by Mary J. Safford; Dodd, Mead and Company, 1911):

“I was born at the la Varenne-Saint-Hilaire, on the 17th of June of I don’t know what year. It was on a 17th of a month I no longer remember that the civil court pronounced the divorce between Maxime Aubry, artist, and Pauline Mutel, his wife. It was again upon a 17th, the 17th of October, 1907, that I was found murdered by an unknown hand, in the city of Dieppe, at the end of the Quai Henry IV. And once more, by a providential chance, it was on the 17th of last month that I again gave my name to Pauline Mutel, my divorced wife!”

Now, here is a bang-up opening paragraph, and no error! Those who have read Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “The Amber Gods,” Conan Doyle’s “How It Happened,” Percival Wilde’s “Dawn,”  or even Captain Abdullah’s “Light,” the opening of which I have quoted, will have a good idea of the type of plot I was led to expect that would be unfolded. But it wasn’t! The narrator of the story was not murdered in the stable on the wharf. It is a misleading statement; and, unless the printer erred, as I have intimated, the only explanations possible are either that the author intentionally put a punch in his first paragraph that was misleading, in order to get the reader’s interest from the very first, or he finished the story, or developed his plot along totally different lines from those upon which he started out.

Apart from this objection—and incidentally—read that story if you possibly can get hold of it! If anyone can write a better mystery yarn, a more fascinating story of dual identity, he is a blown-in-the-bottle genius, and thousands of readers will hail him as such!

But you see the point; don’t mislead your reader under any consideration, and above all, don’t mislead him merely to plant a wallop in your opening paragraph—or the editors (you’ll probably never have readers for that story, if you do) will call you many things other than “genius.”

But if you can get a strangle-hold on the reader’s interest by making some extraordinary statement in your opening paragraph—a statement that you can follow up with a logical and convincing explanation—never miss such a bet!  With the determination to do just that, I opened a detective-mystery novelette thus:

“An odd thing has just happened. I have been tried and condemned to die for the murder of Richard Middleton. I am Richard Middleton.”

Extraordinary as the statement may be, in the reading, the development of the plot “made good” the startling opening.

We have gotten away from the old-fashioned allusions to various dangers and misadventures which the writers of a generation or so ago threw out to enlist the reader’s interest in what was to follow. Not only in the beginnings, but all through many of the stories of yesterday, we meet with these interest-soliciting “leads.” But, occasionally, today, an author will start out by forecasting the various things which his hero is about to endure or be confronted with, and when he is such a writer as William Johnston, the author of “The Yellow Letter,” “The House of Whispers,” and “The Apartment Next Door,” he gets away with it. Mr. Johnston’s opening paragraph to his “The Yellow Letter” follows:

“They say that coming events cast their shadows before them, but certainly I had no intimation, when I left my office on the afternoon of April 12, of the maelstrom of mystery and tragedy into which I was about to plunge. There was anxiety in my mind, it is true, but only such as comes to every young man who finds himself for the first time deeply in love. There was no portent of evil, no foreshadowing of the terrible chain of mysteries that all but destroyed my belief in my fellow men and left its mark so deep upon my memory that I do not believe time ever can wholly efface its effects.”

           And his second short paragraph runs:

“Even now I shudder at the sight of yellow. A scrap of yellow paper always recalls—and I fear always will recall vivid—the painful events of the last few weeks.”

           The story that follows fully justifies Mr. Johnston’s use of what may be called the premonitory opening. Like every other opening, it is the right kind when you know how to use it—and follow it up.

Edgar Wallace—in what I consider the cleverest of the many mystery tales he has written—opens his “Number Six and the Borgia,” in the December 7th, 1920, Popular, in this way:

“The most mysterious and baffling thing about Caesar Valentine was to discover the reason for his mystery. It was a mystery which belonged to the category of elusive though, the name that is on the tip of your tongue, the fact that is familiar, yet defies remembrance.

“When the international police conference held its yearly meeting in 19— in Geneva, and after three strenuous days’ discussion which embraced matters so widely different as the circulation of forged Swedish notes and the philanderings of the Bothnian ambassador—the conference did its best to prevent his assassination, which occurred six months later—the question of Caesar Valentine came up for examination…

“‘Where does he get his money?’ demanded Leary, of Washington. ‘We had him in America for five years, and he did nothing but spend.’

“‘Neither in France nor in America is that a crime,’ smiles Le Comte.

“‘People who have done business with him have had an unfortunate habit of dying suddenly.’ It was Hallett, of the London C.I.B., who put the matter so bluntly, and Leary nodded.

“‘That’s so,’ he said. ‘Providence has been very good to Mr. Valentine. He was in a big wheat deal in Chicago in ’13, and the market went against him. The principal operator was Burgess—John Boyd Burgess. He had a grudge against Valentine, and would have ruined him. One morning Burgess was discovered dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft in his hotel. He had dropped nineteen floor.’”

          I have quoted this much concretely to show how an interest-arousing opening paragraph can be instantly followed up by an author who knows what he is going to say—knows his plot from beginning to end, in its larger details, at least—before starting to write. Dr. Frank Crane, at a recent meeting of The Writers’ Club, remarked that in his opinion one of the chief fallacies of writing was the belief that you must know what you have to say before starting to write. Dr. Crane, however, has written very little, if any, fiction; besides which, what he meant to imply, I am sure, is that you cannot turn out artistic work by sticking too closely to a preconceived idea of what you will say on a given subject. But Dr. Crane knows—as every young writer should learn to know—that there must be a fairly well-developed plot outline, or skeleton plot, in an author’s mind before he even writes his opening paragraph, if the result is to be anything but an imperfectly pieced-together narrative. And you may be equally sure that Mr. Clarence Budington Kelland, who, speaking at another meeting of the same club, declared that he seldom knew what his characters were going to do when he started out to write a new story, always has a roughly outlined idea of his complete story before he sets his opening paragraph on paper.

Certain magazines, including, for example The Black Mask, are especially insistent upon the instant engaging of the reader’s attention. “The Black Mask buys only detective and mystery stories,” read the market report in a past issue of THE WRITER’S DIGEST. “They must be novel in plot and very rapid in action. Many manuscripts are rejected because they begin too slowly. There must be action in the very first paragraph.” And it may be said that the writer will make no mistake in applying the rule, in a general way, to any story, no matter at what magazine it is “aimed.”

The very short story almost always demands a “rapid” opening. I commenced “The Carbon Copy” (Black Cat, April, 1916), reprinted in the March, 1920 issue, thus:

“No, Carson—for God’s sake—not yet! Not until I’ve told you something! It means the chair for you, almost certainly, if you do! I tell you man, you’re as good as sentenced for my murder the moment you press that trigger!”

         And the story ended as follows:

“He (Carson) bent over the dead man and snatched the envelope from the clutching hand. It contained a thin sheet of paper—it was plainly the carbon copy of a typed letter—and it read thus:

“‘To Police Commissioner Hendry.

“‘Sir: —The writer, James Foster Stillman, has only one enemy who hates him enough to wish to take his life. He has good reason to believe that that enemy—whose name, together with information regarding the position he now holds in the South American business world, will be found in the enclosed envelope—will attempt to kill him some time during the next two weeks. Accompanying this man’s name and address will be found an outline of the circumstances which, the writer believes, will cause his enemy to attempt his life, from motives of revenge. It is earnestly requested that the enclosed letter shall not be opened unless the death of the writer is brought about in such a manner as to point indisputably to murder.

          “JAMES F. STILLMAN.’”

Incidentally—in view of the fact that in so short a story I was extremely careful to cut out every unnecessary word—and it can be understood that the story suffered not a little when, in the reprinting of it, someone connected with that now defunct magazine in which it appeared cut down from 900 to about 650 words.

But, in conclusion, as regards story openings, and first paragraphs in particular, the beginner’s best guide is the magazine for which he aims to write. The publisher’s printing bill for rejection slips would be reduced one-half if all authors would follow the advice so often given thoroughly to study each and every magazine they are trying to “make” before submitting a single manuscript.


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