I have put off writing this piece for some time because I couldn’t think of a first paragraph. In this I detect a common dilemma.
Reading through a collection of short stories recently, I realised that several were rather good – except for the first paragraph, the one sculpted to such perfection they said nothing at all. Think of a Barbie Doll and you get the picture.
The first paragraph is a sickness. It is where the writer feel the urge to show brilliance, this siren call reminding me of Samuel Johnson’s haunting counsel: Read through your work. When you come to a part that’s particularly pleasing, strike it out. I can’t say that I fully subscribe to this viewpoint, but it’s scribbled on a Post-it beside my desk nonetheless.
Last paragraphs can be just as troublesome. It’s the one where we feel tempted to tie up loose ends like untied shoelaces. Remember, show don’t tell. Explanation is death.
Writers don’t live in a vacuum. We write to be read. Stories can take any obtuse tangent, but the first concern must be to communicate and, by extension, to entertain. Be obscure, but clearly. Keep sentences short. They’re easier to read. And, by extension, the same with paragraphs.
In a novel, there is time and space for a range of ideas and mood swings, an understanding between the author and and reader that a new world is being revealed. Short stories and articles must grab readers from the first paragraph and hold their attention. It is strange but true that some short story writers can’t write novels and some novelists fail utterly with their short stories.
A lot of mainstream fiction is formulaic and predictable. It is the rebels of self-publishing who find the courage to experiment, to carry the fire through the darkness like mediaeval troubadours. But writers fail in their mission when substance is outweighed by cleverness. Stream of consciousness passages may floor us by the power of their beauty. Like Belgian chocolate, a little goes a long way.
Read Read Read
Surrealism and fantasy are in vogue, but the rules of good fiction remain fixed and only when you know the rules can you rearrange them to suit yourself. When a writer reaches that level of expertise, he can then take Jean Cocteau’s advice: Listen to first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is that critics don’t like – then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.
Writers must strive for individuality while following in the footsteps of all the writers who have gone before them. Painters follow another path; composers their own, juggling the same meagre set of crotchets and quavers until they dazzle with something sparkling and new. This is not plagiarism, unless for writers reading is plagiarism, and no writer gets to be a good writer without following these three essential tips: read, read, read.
It is often said that analysis deadens appreciation. Whilst this may be true, it does not apply to the analysis of your own work. Stories should be read many times before you can honestly say you’re satisfied. It’s a good idea to read aloud. If you pause for anything other than breath, pity the poor reader and put the coffee on. It’s going to be a long night.
Someone asked Oscar Wilde how his writing day had been. ‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.’
One of the awful things about writing (apart from the isolation, rejection, poverty and not knowing what to say when strangers ask what you do) is that no matter how good we think a piece is, there’s a part of us which believes it could be better.
That’s why we keep going. No one knows why we do it and, when we’ve done it, more often than not, nobody wants it. But writers have to write and we must always seek to make what we are writing as good as it can possibly be.
Reading through, I see I don’t need the first paragraph. Or the last.