John McFarland

It's About Time Writers
   the writer's craft
Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA., Thursday, October 14, 2004    

Master Guides on the Revision Trail
(from First Steps and First Words Onward)
Tonight I brought along a cartoon strip that shows and tells about a classic situation we all find ourselves in from time to time. Here we meet a hard-working writer who has had an inspiration and written it down in a late-night frenzy  in the morning he pulls what he has written from the typewriter (this is an old cartoon strip), reads it and says, "I thought this was good when I wrote it last night! It stinks!"
We know the sinking feeling of this fellow writer  unfortunately we know it well. But there is good news: (1) the writer in the cartoon strip has spotted a problem with his latest work early; and (2) he may be able to fix it  it is not too late. And this is where craft comes into play, along with courage and faith. Never forget those either.
We generally can agree on what courage and faith are, but what specifically do we mean by the term "craft"? There seem to be as many definitions of craft as there are writers  every month Esther invites a new one of us to report on our angle.
One of my primary resources as a writer is the dictionary, and so let me tell you some of what I found there. The dictionary's definitions of craft talk about: (1) the artful construction of a text or discourse, well-wrought writing, and (2) skill in doing or making something  proficiency. These definitions certainly provide a starting point for thinking about craft, but, for each of us, the words artful, well-wrought and proficient may take on very different meanings depending on our goals or our audiences.
Rather than confusing the issue by going down too many paths at once, I'll focus on the challenges the writer of short fiction faces: stories are by definition short; they must be artfully focused but somehow rich at the same time. Their brevity, the experts say, puts extra pressure on the very beginning of a story: in the finished story the start may have to be a literal taking-off point. Yet, what you write for the beginning in an early draft may be just something/anything to start; and all too often, if you read over that early draft beginning too soon, you find yourself in the same shoes as our friend in the third panel of the cartoon strip: what you wrote down first may really, really stink. Others may tell you to revise the beginning until you're happier with it. My advice is: don't worry about it too early. Bad first lines happen to the best of writers; some truly great writers, in fact, publish finished stories with openings that strain a reader's patience, even a fan's patience.
Here's one example from Henry James:
"I had simply, I supposed, a change of heart, and it must have begun when I received my manuscript from Mr. Pinhorn." ( from "The Death of the Lion")
Now, those of us who read James and love his work know that the rest of the story may have a payoff that is not evident in this less-than-thrilling opening line, and we may allow him a little longer to get going. But what if we were browsing through a collection of a writer we didn't know at all, say a collection by the Nobel-laureate German writer Heinrich Böl, and we happened to open the book to a story which starts with the line: "While I was standing on the dock watching the seagulls, my sad face attracted the attention of a policeman on his rounds." (from "My Sad Face")? Even if we regard these opening lines from Henry James and Heinrich Böl as serviceable, in the sense that they are setting the scene or tone (as William Trevor does with the pedestrian line, "The rectory was in County Wexford, eight miles from Ennisworthy." [from "Autumn Sunshine"]), there is no way that we will say after reading the whole story that the opening line was the most memorable one in the story  and there is no rule that says it has to be. OK, let's assume that we accept the opening line as serviceable; but we also have to be honest with ourselves: when we read such lines we are waiting for something to start and we are already slightly bored. And if we are bored and ready to stop reading the work of the famous and acclaimed, we know in our bones what mystery writer Jane Langton refers to when she advises, "You've got to be aware that the reader is probably reading in a hurry . . . (and) you cannot be boring." (from "A Literary Life: Talking with Jane Langton," by Susan Lumenello, Harvard University GSAS Colloquy, Summer 2003, pp. 10-11). What's more, once we've read the Paris Review Interviews with Authors series, we also won't be able to push aside Tennessee Williams's opinion that if you feel you're losing an audience's attention, you have to do something, anything, to get it back even if you have to shoot someone onstage. Our own instincts as readers and the wise words offered by our guides, the more seasoned writers, tell us one thing: building the potential for boredom into an opening is something to be avoided.
Though we don't want to back ourselves into a corner where we feel compelled to be melodramatic or merely "entertaining," there are many alternatives to taking the risk James, Böll and Trevor dared in these stories I've mentioned. Here are a few:
(1) "In Paris there are certain streets which are in as much disrepute as any man branded with infamy can be."  Honoré de Balzac (trans. Herbert J. Hunt), from "Ferragus: Chief of the Companions of Duty"
or, (2) "Miss Diana never used the peep hole in her front door."  Pedro Zarraluki (trans. Jason Wilson), from "The Gallant Ghost"
or, (3) "'Ooh! This is Hell! We're entering the jaws of Hell!' shrieked Marga."  Ana Maria Moix (trans. Dinny Thorold), from "That Red-Headed Boy I See Every Day"
These first lines prompt me as a reader to cry out, "And? . . . And?" Reading them, I am most definitely not bored and I really want to know what comes next.
In these particular first lines we find: (1) sheer beauty of language or a vitality that hooks us (as in the Balzac), (2) mystery that draws us in (as in Zarraluki), or (3) a line that telegraphs what will come, but in a sly, enticing way, not by giving away the whole show right off the bat. When a first line is effective in holding our attention and keeping it, we feel less bored and more secure that the next lines the writer will unfold for us will build on that. For a short story writer, this is the best insurance we can buy.

In my own work, I show a distinct bias toward the third approach: the hint that telegraphs. For example, a few of my first lines are:
"Most days Momma bent over backwards to be a walking example."  from "No Fault"
"Others could laugh, but David was a believer."  from "Evenings Out"
"Joel Winwood's bright red shirt with its green piping made him look like a pincushion."  from "Jimmy's Class"
I feel that if my first line intrigues the reader, then I've earned some breathing space to develop my story. But I'm here to report that in none of these cases was the first line that appears in the final, published version of the story in the first draft  not in the first line or anywhere else. And what I've found is that the line that eventually takes its place at the beginning of a story actually grows out of the story as the story is reworked and reworked and reworked. For me in the process of revising, the story evolves and seems to grow its own beginning. That's my good news; but there's bad news too. Revisions seem to proceed uniquely for each story: there is no formula, there is no set number of revisions. My only guideline is that I'll know when it's done  if I live through it. (It's the rare writer who can join Anita Brookner, the brilliant author of Hotel du Lac and other novels, in saying that she only writes one draft of her books  her first draft is the final version, no revisions, no fortieth draft, she sits down, writes it out and she's done. For the rest of us, though . . . well, we can only envy her.)
Practice and reading other people's work have honed my instincts for knowing when the story is done  and doing that has also developed my ability to see when it works and when it doesn't. And I always keep in mind what Mark Twain said: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
That genuine jolt Twain is talking about is one example of the thrill factor that I feel we must always strive to build into our stories. In his novel Finnie Walsh, Steven Galloway is in the midst of describing a familiar hockey maneuver that Finnie is executing on the ice when Finnie adds something spicy and unique to the old move, surprising his audience where they weren't expecting it; Galloway then comments: "this only served to increase Finnie's popularity with both sexes; nothing was as attractive as skill and unpredictability." (pp. 91-92) And so here Galloway is talking about the thrill factor in the hockey move (which he captured), but he's also captured the essence of how he did it as a writer: skill and unpredictability; the hint and the invitation. We all have to master doing both together, with perfect timing and precision, or else we won't carry it off; and if it fails, we look pretentious, clumsy or too far-out. The right words in the right combination at the right time give you Twain's lightning.
Let's talk about some ways of making lightning strike on a regular basis.
A few years ago I was working with the editor of an anthology and he suggested one small change to the story I'd sent him. It was a simple change and it involved the very first word a reader would see: the title. I had called my story "Playtime." What the editor suggested was to add an exclamation mark to transform my title into "Playtime!" It's simple, yes, but it was also colossal: all of a sudden the story announced itself with authority; from its title alone you know that things will get rolling fast and that you should probably expect a good time. The exclamation mark brought that extra oomph that made the story that much more itself, like the twist of lemon in your cocktail, or the accessory that makes an ensemble work together, the expert flair. To me, this was the best kind of editorial prodding and collaboration, and that experience has helped sharpen my own editorial eye.
Another example illustrates this principle in another way: I recently won a contest with a new story. When I started working on this story it carried the title "Airing." I thought at the time that it was going to be about Opening Up and Letting In the Air. Only after many revisions did I see the story had to begin with the narrator stating that he was very sure of his attitude toward current arrangements in his life. In the first line, he says, "I didn't need a boyfriend. I already had one and he was a keeper." As the story evolved, however, it became clear that although he may not have needed another boyfriend, he finds other things he and many people like him do need: friendship, brotherhood, respect, trust and equal protection under the law. That arc of the narrator's growth, going from the certainty of Not Needing one narrowly defined thing to an awareness of a broader sense of Needing, was a surprise to me, and so I changed the title to "Not Needing, Needing." That title, which grew organically out of the story, may not make complete sense to a reader until after reading the story, yet I felt it was the perfect title for it, and perhaps the only one. Once I had that title, and the first line set the stage with authority, solutions to many of the nagging questions I had about the body of the story came into focus and the entire piece fell quickly into place for me. Not only that, after the fact, I discovered that the term, "Not Needing, Needing," is a concept in the work of the psychoanalyst Abraham Maslow (famous for his work on "peak experience" and "self-actualization"). I had never heard of that concept before, but it fits in miraculously well with what turned out to be the theme of the finished story.
Up to now, I have been talking about ideal situations and words of wisdom from our chosen guides, but I have also brought a real-life example with me. A while back, I wrote a draft of a story that I called "Simple Happiness." Its first two paragraphs are:

Simple Happiness

Paula had decided it was easier to go than to stay away. Staring Nathan down, she asked, "What should I bring?"
"You're actually coming?" The exhausted monotone of what he called "Mr. Nathan's afternoon voice" perked up in astonishment that Paula was saying yes to the standing invitation to his Friday get-togethers.

Later on in the story the tension set up in these first two paragraphs changes in surprising ways and really the "simple" of the title isn't so simple; as I re-read the opening in this draft, I felt it was OK, but I also felt it was stalling. It was perhaps asking the reader to cut Nathan and Paula too much slack, to let them, still complete strangers to the reader, meander when really the reader may want them to get off the dime. But what ultimately motivated me to change what seemed perfectly serviceable was that I eliminated parts of a later scene  in that one, Paula has a hangover when she confronts the concept of simple happiness and acknowledges how hard it is for her to accept that it can actually exist. Once the section of that scene with its reference to "simple happiness" was gone, the title made absolutely no sense. Without that, though, the real thrust of the story emerged more clearly for me, and I could speed it along. I found then that that section of the scene and the title it brought up were actually obstacles to my making the story a tight whole. And so I changed the title, and loosened up the beginning in a way that lets the reader inside Paula's emotions faster and less ambiguously. And here is the beginning as I changed it:


Paula was in a bind. Nathan had just invited her to another of his regular Friday get-togethers and seemed about to crash and burn in front of her eyes. She really didn't want to go, but in the end this time it was easier to accept than to cook up an excuse to stay away. "What should I bring?" she asked.
The effect was miraculous. Nathan bounced back from the edge. "You'll actually come? Jimmy will die!"

These changes may seem minor or inconsequential as I read them to you here, but in the context of the whole story, I feel they are critical  the beginning of the "Saviors" version works better in setting up the tensions that will be extended and upended in the course of the story. And, what's more, and this is the most important thing, when I read the opening to "Saviors" I don't have the sinking feeling our friend exhibits in the cartoon strip: I have taken what made me cringe in the early draft of "Simple Happiness" and saved it from itself.
My first published writing was film criticism and book reviews  essentially journalism. There, the requirements are spelled out by your editor and the standards set by those who have preceded you, a very different situation from the anything-goes rules of writing poetry or fiction. But I learned important lessons as a creative writer from journalism: conciseness, awareness of your audience and its expectations, and, most of all, what sets you apart is how you introduce the thrill factor into your work. Never forget personality, and never underestimate its power.
And let me end with one last quote, this one from Guy Davenport, another writer worth checking out, writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1982: "Two people attentive to a detail of the world make a society, and the object they find significant has crossed over from meaninglessness to symbol. Art is always the replacing of indifference by attention."
Once again, the wise words offered by our guides, the more seasoned writers, tell us that the work of attention to detail, and transforming that detail from meaninglessness to universal meaning or symbol, is, ultimately, our craft, our magic and our goal.

Copyright © 2004 by John McFarland

First Presented at the "It's About Time Reading Series," Edition #183, on October 14, 2004, as one author's perspective on The Writer's Craft

John McFarland is a short story writer, essayist and citric. A smart aleck once said, "His work has been published everywhere from Cricket Magazine to The BadBoy Book of Erotic Poetry." More loving commentators have noted that his fiction and essays have appeared in the eminent literary journals Ararat, Caliban and StringTown as well as in the anthologies The Next Parish Over: A Collection of Irish-American Writing (New Rivers Press, 1993) and The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). His book for young readers, The Exploding Frog: and Other Fables from Aesop (Little Brown, 1981) was selected by Parents Choice Magazine as one of the best illustrated-books of 1981. His story "A Secret of the Andes" won First Prize, Children's Picture Book Category, at the 1992 Pacific Northwest Writers Conference and was later published as a centerpiece in Cricket Magazine's soccer issue of September 1997. Most recently, his short story "Not Needing, Needing" was selected as the winner of Frontiers Newsmagazine's first short fiction contest. He contributes book reviews regularly to Publisher's Weekly on business, economics and public policy titles and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. for more information, please visit to John's home page