I’m a day late with this post for a stew of reasons, the culmination of which being I couldn’t get any purchase on this week’s story until I woke on Monday morning and realised what it was about. Then had to rewrite it. Stephen King is right, I think, writing is akin to excavation. The story exists, I’ve managed to scratch some of it out of the earth, and now need to keep brushing the soil off it. That’s the only way it will emerge as a human artefact.
Last Tuesday, at Café Stories, we looked at hooks. Those compelling opening lines that invite readers into a story. I gave participants a handful of my favourite examples, and asked them to choose one each so we could discuss what made them so irresistible. We all agreed that a captivating hook offered a number of possibilities, made you ask questions, and felt familiar in some way.
For example, Rosemary’s chosen line: ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,’* was instantly recognisable – we’ve all had such plans thwarted – and made us ask why. Was it the weather; an unexpected arrival; had she hurt herself; had somebody died; had the sole come off her walking boots? We could think of dozens of reasons, and the only way to find out which, if any of them, it is, is to read on. The genius of those ten short words is that there’s nothing overtly emotional in any of them, but together they make you care. We had a lively discussion.
Then I gave them ten minutes to compose some of their own. I did it too, we all read ours out and talked a bit about the ones we liked best, and how they operated, before I set them to pick one and develop it into a story. Homework was to finish that story and email it to me by Sunday evening so I have time to read and add useful annotations before the next workshop. Thus I have a little pile in my inbox waiting for attention. And my own story to finish.
The lines I came up with during the session are:
1) Everything was fine until the chicken died.
2) When the phone rings in this house, regardless of the time of day, she stares at it counting the rings, picking up only when it’s in danger of ringing out. A game of telephone roulette she doesn’t even realise she’s playing.
3) Agnes Carter glides to the shed in which she keeps her supplies, her flip-flops snapping at her heels.
4) The cheese sandwich curled in the last of the sun.
I’m sure you’ll agree none of them are particularly inviting, but I was determined to make something of one of them, which could be why I’ve struggled so much. Usually when I write, I start with a vision, like a fuzzy film playing in my head. There’s a character and a situation that I find myself drawn to question. That questioning clarifies the vision and becomes the story. It’s all rather organic. The vision emerges like the tiny shoot of a self seeded native plant that had only been waiting for the right conditions; the questions, like water and sunlight, bring it to life. But working from a dashed off line was more like trying to grow Morning Glory on a west facing wall.
I chose number four for no particular reason, and started off well enough, but stalled after about two hundred words. Then other things took over, and I didn’t look at it again till Friday, when I forced a few more lines. Late Sunday afternoon, between a volunteer session on the hill, and drinks at friends, I stared at it for some time and, finally, added a scant resolution to the single scrappy scene I’d managed, and gave it a rather abrupt ending.
Nibbling on radishes and sipping wine at B & R’s I felt sure I’d made a terrible mistake in choosing a cheese sandwich to write about, but chalked it up to experience, and let it go. Then Monday morning happened, and I spent most of the day on it, steadfastly ignoring the outside world. As I said, it still needs to be cleaned up before it shows its worth, or lack thereof, but it seems to me to be more than a clod of dry mud.
A cheese sandwich curls in the bold noon sun, no crumbs on the table, a pickle stained knife in the sink the only sign it hadn’t spontaneously materialized. A pair of battered leather sandals beside a back door wide open to the garden, where dry sheets bake on a line made of fishing wire – ‘you could land a sixty pound pike with that, it won’t even notice your smalls.’ Old Marbury had said, that smile playing in the corner of his mouth like a badly tuned tv, when she balked at his offer to replace her snapped nylon fibre.
Only she knows how awkward it is to get the pegs to stick. She’s had to resort to wadding, which means hanging takes three times as long. She will return to fibre once old Marbury dies she tells herself, and feels guilty. Which is why when she heard the cry she ran, throwing the knife into the sink on her way out the door, not stopping for footwear, and called: ‘Ol… Mar… Mis…’ She rounded the fence and saw him on the concrete slabs with which he’d replaced his lawn, for ease of maintenance, oblivious to her pleas to retain a pear tree so gnarled she fancied it inspiration for the arabesques of an imagined local Illuminated Manuscript, and gasped. As twisted as the branch Billy McKechnie gave her the day she forced herself to watch him wield his chainsaw, as pale as the fruit the tree will no longer bear, a similar blush of carmine blooming on the bulge of his forehead, his left hand flapping like a windsock in a gale. Noise buds from his half-closed mouth, but doesn’t appear to be an attempt at communication.
She looks up at the roof and sees a shiny new satellite dish dangling from the chimney; down at the wall and sees the ladder leaning against it like a labourer on a break, missing only a hard-hat and cigarette whose ash to flick; spots fragments of slate on the ground.
Old fool, she thinks, and roots in her pocket for her phone.
You’ll notice several sentences that need to be unpacked and reorganised. And there’s a bit of a tense thing going on: degrees of past and present are somewhat confused: the cheese sandwich is curling in the right now, as is her assessment of the situation. But there’s a segue from her memory of the pear tree incident to the present I need to work on. And I will. As King has said, writing is a process of transferring information from your imagination to the reader, it’s hard, but worth it.
Header image from the Facebook page of the Ministry for Antiquities.