Friday, July 11, 2014

Opening the Marquis de Carabas's Coat


I dropped by Gardner Dozois' house the other day and  received my contributor's copy of Rogues (other contributors will have to wait upon the mail) and I am here to report that it is one solid piece of goods.  Most anthologies, all you have to do is write an extremely good story to be mentioned in the reviews.  Here, alas, that's not enough.  The competition is fierce.

Which is, of course, from the reader's perspective, good.

The first story I chose, via random processes, to read was Neil Gaiman's "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back."  Which I enjoyed, of course.  But, since the opening paragraph was particularly apt for my purposes, I thought I'd present it here and then point out some of what gonnabe writers might learn from it.

First, the paragraph:
It was beautiful.  It was remarkable.  It was unique.  It was the reason that the Marquis de Carabas was chained to a pole in the middle of a circular room, far, far underground, while the water level rose slowly higher and higher.  It had thirty pockets, seven of which were obvious, nineteen of which were hidden, and four of which were more or less impossible to find -- even, on occasion, for the Marquis himself.

Three obvious things to notice here:

First, the protagonist is introduced right away, and his characterization follows close on the heels of that introduction.

Second, the action starts immediately.  Which is to say the story starts immediately. No background info, no scene setting... These things come later, after you're involved in the plot.  Neil. Because purpose of a story's opening is to not to establish mood or provide information to help you understand in depth what will start happening in a few pages, but to get you reading.  

Third, fi you pay attention to those first three sentences, you'll see that Neil worked hard to make them engaging.  There is a superstition among gonnabe writers that the established names can write weak stories and sell them on the basis of their names.  Well... If anyone has a big enough name to do this, it's Neil Gaiman.  Yet here he is, working hard to make the story work.  Go thou and do likewise.

There is a fourth observation to be made.  But first, you must earn it.  Here's how:

Buy the book or get it from the library.  Read the story through for pleasure.  Don't analyze!  Just read it.  A writer's ability to experience a story as his or her readers do is her or his greatest asset.  Then read the story through slowly and carefully.  Observe the workings of it, the foreshadowings, the information planted so later events will make sense, and so on.  Then read it through analytically one more time.

Put the story aside for a week.

Then -- and this is the final step -- read the story through yet one more time, uncritically and in a rush, to appreciate how all the things you've learned about its workings combine into the experience of reading a story.

Got that?  Good.  Now repeat that process with every story you e encounter this month.

It won't make you a better person.  But it will make you a better writer.

And the fourth observation . . .

I'll give you the fourth observation on Monday.  Those who have done the exercise will benefit from it.  Those who have not, almost certainly won't.  Because writing is no business for the lazy.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  If you happen to be at Readercon, maybe I'll see you there.


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