Recently, I’ve been struggling with fiction writing. While the desire to tell stories has returned, I’ve felt as if the ability to do so has fled. I know that this isn’t necessarily the case, but if there is one thing I have learned with this recent bout of–let’s call it what it is–writer’s block, it’s that writing fiction, for me at least, is not like riding a bike. I can’t just get back on the bike and with the same level of skill that I had when I stopped writing.
Writer’s block affects writers differently. None of my struggles have to do with a lack of ideas. I’ve got plenty of those. I know the stories I want to tell. As with most stories, I have an idea of how to start them and roughly how they will end. The rest I make up along the way, often discovering that my original ending is not how the stories wants to be resolved. My problem is with tone and voice. I often have an idea of the voice for story, but just lately, I haven’t been able to find the voices I’m looking for. If I don’t have the right voice at the start of a story, I struggle out the gate.
A measure of progress often helps me, if for no other reason, it shows me how far I’ve come. But writing is a finicky thing, and it is hard to measure progress. That said, I think I may have found just the trick for me. I recently began to archive all of the stories I’ve ever written or tried to write in a single place. I had a few simple goals in mind:
- Archive every story I could find, no matter how far back it goes.
- Keep the archive in chronological order.
- If at all possible, keep all versions, and drafts of a story together.
I decided that for my purposes, Google Docs was a good place to maintain this archive. I started with a repository of stories I wrote beginning in my junior year in college. That’s when I first began writing stories with a vision toward submitting them for publication. Converting those stories was not easy. Current version of Microsoft Word do not recognize the Word for DOS 5.5 file format (a good reason for plain text files). So I used a text editor to pull the text out of those documents and put them in Google Docs using a standard manuscript template I created for the purpose.
So far, I’ve archived 27 stories from 1992-1994. The conversion process forced me to look at these stories for the first time in several decades. And that had the interesting side-effect of allowing me to measure my progress in terms of all sorts of aspects of my writing–from the quality of the stories (which is fairly subjective) to the effectiveness of my opening lines. This latter often sets the tone and voice of the story. It was painful to read through some of these old opening lines, but it made me feel good. If nothing else, I can write a pretty good opening line these days.
I thought it might be interesting to publish a kind of evolution of my opening lines. Below are 10 opening lines from some of these stories, along with some comments. Enjoy how awful they are. Though I cringed when I read them, I felt pretty good, too. I’ve come a long way since then.
1. “The Stone” (1992)
Flint made his way across the freshly settled snow, his feet covered in the skin of a black bear.
I believe this was the first story I wrote after I decided to begin submitting stories, sometime in December 1992. It featured a caveman named Flint. How original!
2. “Plans for Christmas” (1992)
Mia climbed into her Jeep four-by-four and tossed the two long black tubes into the back.
For some reason, when I started out, I avoided common names. It looks silly to me now. Once again, nothing of interest happens in the first line.
3. “The Missing Mile” (1992)
The road opened up endlessly before him as Kyle merged his car onto the empty stretch of the countryside highway.
I think my creative writing professor commented for this particular story, “Not only does the road open endlessly, but the story goes on endlessly.” This is what happens to my stories when they start poorly and have no direction whatsoever.
4. “A Byte of Heaven” (1993)
Malcolm stared blankly at the cold white walls of his bedroom, trying hard to ignore the pleas of his son.
I’m almost certain that when I wrote this opening line, I was staring blankly at the cold white walls of my bedroom, trying hard to ignore the pleas of a roommate.
5. “Amphisbaenid” (1993)
Doctor Egerton stood anxiously on the dusty wooden balcony atop a flight of dull gray stairs.
You know that old saw, show, don’t tell? Well, this is pretty much the opposite. How does one stand anxiously? And why did I need to mention that the dusty wooden balcony was at the top of a flight of dull gray stairs. And why does everything in my stories seem to lack color.
6. “Carmel” (1993)
The room was dim, its dull white walls gently illuminated by a small window on the far side.
I’m beginning to see a pattern. I am trying to set the physical scene in these stories at the outset. No action, just telling the stagehands how the set should look when the curtain opens.
7. “Concatenate” (1993)
The Human Ex-Why walked across the carpeted floor, in its unique bi-ped fashion, one paw lifting off the ground and striding forward, while the other paw held back, waiting its turn to go.
Funny thing about this story, aside from its atrocious opening: It’s a story about a cat. I submitted it to Cat Fancy magazine, and several weeks later, received a rejection slip explaining that Cat Fancy does not publish fiction about cats. (Although they did, at the time, publish fiction.)
8. “Conscience Stream” (1993)
His head felt swollen as he stared out the window.
I’m fairly certain I wrote this opening line just after taking a final exam.
9. “Incident Eight” (1993)
It was the deafening sound of silence that started him from his sleep.
This may be the worst of the lot. The story was pretty bad, too, despite its nearly 17,000 words. Stories that start with a character waking up (or a character dreaming) are generally considered to be no-nos. There are always exceptions. This is not one of them.
10. “No Small Discovery” (1993)
William sat in front of his baby.
At least I used a fairly common name this time.
Eventually, I learned, and improved. By 1996 I was writing openings that were pretty good. After about 100 stories or thereabout, I hit upon an opening line that sold for the first time:
From “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” (IGMS, July 2007)
When I kissed the learned astronomer, I never expected to fall in love, discover intelligent alien life in the universe, and end up in jail.
I always liked that opening line because it hits on all of the things I need for a story to work for me. It sets the tone (a little light) and it introduces the voice of the narrator, a voice which works well for the story. Incidentally, when I started writing this story, I had no idea what would happen. I wrote this opening line, which more or less says what will happen in the story. I then went to see where it would lead.
From “Take One for the Road” (Analog, June 2011)
There was only one person on Earth who knew what really happened on that mission to Mercury
I think I was getting better. I like this opening because it gets right to the point and establishes that something unusual happened on a mission to Mercury, and there was only one person who knew what it was.
From “Lost and Found” (Daily Science Fiction, October 2012)
The mailman delivered the unusual package as the young man who visited me on occasion was leaving.
Here I am getting a little more nuanced. It wasn’t just a package that was delivered. That wouldn’t be all that interesting. It was an unusual package.
From “Meat and Greet” (IGSM, January 2015)
So there he is, Borges, returned from the dead and sitting across the table from me smelling of dust and moldy books as if he’d spent the last quarter-century scrambling through the stacks of an old and cavernous library.
I think this is my longest opening line. And it helps prove my point (at least to me) that I need to find the right tone and voice for a story. I tried writing a version of this story in 1994. It took 21 years for me to find just the right tone and voice.
I often think that when a writer (especially this writer) begins to take themselves too seriously, problems arise in the writing. Perhaps that is what I have been doing lately. In any case, I think it helps to look back at how awful I used to be in order to see how far I’ve come.
And if you think you have opening lines worse than those above (something which I think is virtually impossible), feel free to share them in the comments.