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HOW THIS CRITTER CRITS Cha. 6: Beginnings & Endings

August 29, 2011

If you’ve been with us from the beginning of  “How This Critter Crits,” you may skip this summary and deduct 11 seconds from the reading time.  If you are a newcomer, you might want to take a moment to familiarize yourself with what’s been covered so far:

A Bird’s Eye View

The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why I felt it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.

The last two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I’ve chosen.  The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the “weight” and the “movement” of the piece  It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus.

With this present  segment we add definition and contour to the quest.  Our eyes are wide open.  Our feet are on the ground.  Enjoy …


          I think it was the Cheshire Cat who said, “A really fine place to begin is the beginning.”  He didn’t?  Well…  no matter.  (I think you’re wrong, but that’s fine.)  You’ll have to admit, though, it sounds like a C. S. Lewis line — at least allow me that!  What?  How embarrassing!  Did I say C. S. Lewis?  I meant Lewis Carroll.  Okay!  Okay, then, whether or not the Cheshire cat said it… or Lewis Carroll penned it — still, the beginning is a fine place to begin; you’d agree with that wouldn’t you?  How could you not!

And, even after all these chapters, it so happens that’s where we are … at the beginning.

After having taken, you’ll recall, a selection of short fiction on a quickie cursor-slide from the top of the screen to the bottom to get a general feel for it, we’ve put our clothes back on and pulled back up to the top.  We are hunkered over our monitor, now, leaning in to the first paragraph.  Yes, a really fine place to begin is the beginning — if it is a really … fine … beginning.

That is the subject of this first chapter of Micro-Critting:  Beginnings.  And Endings.

Oh, and Salesmanship.

*   *   *

There hasn’t been a significant period of time since 1972 that I haven’t been a commissioned salesman.  I was not a good salesman in the beginning.  For about six miserable months during 1979, following a grass-is-greener move to a different insurance company, I was forced to supplement my income by taking over my sons’ paper routes.  They thought it was unfair.  But, they would have thought being put up for adoption unfair as well.  In the end, it was rather like a large and powerful country subduing a couple of smaller, punier ones.  Now that I am, perhaps, ten years from drooling senility and they both stand a head taller than I — looking back, I can see it more from their perspectives.

Why wasn’t I a good salesman back then?  I mean, I was committed to it for the long haul.  I was patient.  I patiently waited for the customer to come up to my desk and say, “Jay, I would sure like to buy $100,000 of life insurance.  Do you have an application and a pen?”  Yes, I was patient.  I had mastered quite a winning smile.  But, for some reason, no one came to my desk.  Meanwhile, we were starving.

I guess I always understood it intuitively, but it took me years to accept the lesson that you can’t make the sale until you get in front of the customer.  And, you won’t get in front of a customer until you first get his attention, and then his interest.

*   *   *

            Role-play with me a moment:  Pretend you’re the customer. You’ve cautiously invited the salesman into your home.  He is standing in front of you.  What he is selling is this:  it’s the chapter, somewhere near the middle, of a novel.  It was the title of the novel that grabbed you — the teaser the salesman used to get your attention and sparked in you an interest for what he was selling.  The title he used to get in front of you is not always an accurate indicator of the value of what’s inside.  But, it’s an important first impression.

At this point we’ll stop saying “salesman” and “he” because the salesperson sitting across from you, grinning like, well, like a Cheshire Cat, just happens to be FanStory’s own, Raven Aorla.  She got her foot in your door with her novel’s title: Derrick Jangoral: Magical Mormon.  And, who wouldn’t be captivated?  Squiggled right down in the middle of the cognitive part of your brain, eats away the question:  What in the bejeebers is a Magical Mormon?  You know what a Mormon is, of course.  You’ve probably seen pairs of them on their bicycles and in their white shirts, pedaling wherever these Missionaries pedal in their white shirts and impeccable manners.  But, when you throw in “Magical,” well, something magical happens to your conception of “Mormon.”

Raven Aorla is here to sell you chapter 7 of Derrick Jangoral: Magical Mormon.  With the title nibbling away at your curiosity, you dip into the first paragraph:

“Some might say that proposing marriage while cleaning kitty litter lacked

style, but Derrick Jangoral had style.  It just happened to be different from

everybody else’s.  Besides, being the owner of a pet store made him clean

kitty litter quite often.  He still tried to look suave, wearing all black over a

long, spindly body.  Even with cat hair covering his clothes he seemed

more the artistic type than retail.”*

Now, tell me the truth, with that paragraph behind you, isn’t Derrick Jangoral someone in whose company you’d enjoy spending a few pages?  No long-term commitment needed.  How about just one page with a gangly guy clad in black, faintly redolent of seasoned kitty litter — oh, yes, and someone who had just proposed marriage while looking up from the litter box he was cleaning?  One page?  Personally … betcha can’t read just one.

*   *   *

            Shall we let Raven leave your home now?  She has work to do.  Besides, if she’s done a good job selling you on the first paragraph, she’s confident you’ll pay her handsomely for it once you get to the end.  You might say it’s in the stars!

*   *   *

            It’s enough, then, to have an opening sentence so compelling that it reaches up, grabs you by the throat and drags you into the page and all the way through the first paragraph.  Right?

The answer is a resounding “wrong!”

The dynamic opening of a story is a promise — and the writer had better plan to deliver on that promise.  Suppose I am presenting a life insurance policy to a young couple.  According to the reckoning I did preparing for this appointment I knew that a life insurance policy with a $100,000 death benefit, (assuming they paid the premium every month until the husband’s age 65), would provide a supplemental retirement benefit of $900.00 a month for the rest of his life.  That’s what my figuring told me.  That’s the company’s promise.  But, listen!  I want this sale.  I really want it.  It will be just enough to push me over the top, to give me a nice bonus and a trip to Hawaii.  And, all I’d have to do is put a 1 in front of the 900.

So, I’ve made my decision.  I’m sitting across from the customer.  How’s this for my opening?

“Mr. Jones, would you be interested if I showed how you could invest $50 a month in an insured savings plan, knowing that if you died your widow and children would receive a tax-free check for $100,000?  That’s tax-free!  But wait a minute, I’m not finished: if you live to age 65, you stop paying the $50 to the company, and, instead, we will start paying you $1,900 each and every month for the rest of your life.  And, you can spend every penny of it, Mr. Jones, because next month, when you go out to your mailbox you’ll find another check for $1,900 waiting for you.  How would that feel, Mr. Jones?”

What’s wrong with being on the selling end of this scenario — other than in being against the insurance code and civil law — and, just as pertinent, the fact that, with my luck, I would still be alive when he turned sixty-five?

What’s wrong on the most superficial level is that it just doesn’t smell right.  It seems too good to be true.  And, if he chose not to heed his nose, he would ultimately realize — okay, maybe forty years later, but by the time he finally arrived at “the ending” — that it didn’t live up to my original promise.

Back to FanStory, does the first sentence, or paragraph, of the story you’re reading seem to be promising more than it can deliver?  You may not have to arrive at the end of the story to discover this.  Often it becomes clear before the end of a paragraph or two.  An example:

When John was seven he loved cats, but they didn’t seem to want to return his love; when he discovered this, he contrived ways to let them, individually, know that he didn’t appreciate that: ways like hanging them, shoving fire crackers into that soft place under their tails, or — his favorite — microwaving them for a minute-and-a-half, on high.                      

John’s love of cats stopped when he was eight.  He was in the third grade and his teacher noticed how much artistic talent he possessed.  She encouraged him and urged his parents to do the same.  They bought him an easel and supplies ranging from pastel chalks, tubes of oil paints and acrylics.  He sat out behind the house for hours, painting trees and mountains and vagrant clouds.

At first, you might think the writer is contrasting the second paragraph with the seven-year-old cat-loving John.  But, if this were his intention the writer would have transitioned after the ironic first sentence in the second paragraph, and taken the story in a more logical direction.  If, after a five-page short story or a 250 page novel, there is nothing in John’s character that ties back to the first paragraph, then the writer has sold you a $1,900 a month retirement benefit for fifty bucks a month.

Now that we’ve looked at an example of a first paragraph that promised more than it delivered, let’s look at an example of an opening that promises little or nothing at all:

Alice woke at seven o’clock, shut off the alarm and went into the bathroom.  She took a shower, dressed and left the house.  On the way to her first class she stopped and bought a chocolate donut at the bakery.  She saw Bill sitting on the school steps.

            “Hi, Bill,” she said, and she smiled.

            “Hi, Alice,” Bill said.

            She pushed open the door and went inside.

Here we have no promise at all.  Do we have any investment in what happens to Alice?  Should we even care?

Let’s see if the writer could have rescued it:  Suppose her first thought when she woke was of Bill, whom she would like to know better.  After all, didn’t we almost detect a slight pulse when she smiled at Bill?  How about if her smile revealed the frosting from her chocolate donut was slathered across her front tooth?  Now we have a hook! — a hook that is an implicit promise.  Then, as long as her greeting to Bill figured prominently in another part of Alice’s story, the promise in the hook will have been satisfied.

*   *   *

            Provisionally, you may let the salesman into your home (or the writer onto the screen of your consciousness) based on the titillation caused by his first few words, but you let him linger awhile based on the promise inherent in his first few hundred words.  Together, you might say that these comprise the first impression.

But, how important is the last impression?  While I won’t insult you by asking how important the ending of a short story or a novel is, I will beg you to be gentle while I point to something almost equally as obvious: that is, the difference in function between the ending of a short story and the ending in the chapter of a novel.

There is little structural distinction between short fiction and a novel.  In the introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 2003 (I believe the year is correct, but can’t confirm since my copy was sold for about a quarter at our last garage sale), I remember the argument proffered that the margins between the two are blurred at best.  There was one short story in that book that was over 140 pages long.  We’ve all read novels that were shorter than that.  The argument about the difference being in the passage of fictional time equally falls through the cracks.  Though I don’t have the novel in front of me, isn’t it James Joyce’s Ulysses that chronicles the life of Bloom over a 24-hour period — and take several hundred pages to accomplish it?  It has to do with pacing and progression, which will be addressed in another segment.

For matters of convenience, this critter has settled on the following working definition of short fiction:  Fiction that can comfortably read in one sitting.  What is important here is that the writer wants his reader to be so thoroughly engrossed as to devour the piece all at once, as it were.  There is a hungry anxiety about the writer of short fiction.  His feet are always tapping, his fingers drumming.

The novel, on the other hand can be distinguished from short fiction by its division into chapters allowing the reader to enjoy a separate life away from, though hopefully not totally outside of, the novel.  Regardless of his genre, the novelist must be a realist.  He knows that few readers are going to read his novel throughout the night and into the next day.  I like to think of the great novelists (such as Honore de Balzac, G. K. Chesterton and Gertrude Stein, to name a few) as portly and patient.  Likewise, I’d like to think of any great novelists who were not portly or patient as being mere exceptions to my rule.

For its greatest possible impact, then, short fiction needs to be read at one sitting, while a novel, to reveal its greatest potential, should be read in no less increments than one chapter at a time.  Still, phones ring when they ring, babies cry when they cry, bladders urge when they urge, so only in a perfect world can you read short fiction at a sitting.

The best that even the writer of short fiction can do is to keep the level of interest higher at various junctures, such as scene breaks.  One source** suggests that you work that strategy on the paragraph level — that the writer should strive to have each paragraph develop and grow out of the hook of the preceding paragraph, and so on, like beads strung on a necklace.

I say, let us go pee.

But, as a critter of short works I will not hesitate to praise a writer for his or her savvy placement of that perfect combination of words at the end of a paragraph or at a scene break that serves to heighten the tension or leave the reader wondering, “Why?”, “Who?”, or “Where?”

But what about the final paragraph, or the last, say, couple of hundred words?  What about the “last impression?”  There are a lot of ingredients that go into a piece of short fiction to make it a tasty and satisfying treat.  Most are outside the scope of this chapter and will be covered later.  Here we’re concerned with “last impressions,” and the important assumption is that the writer wants you to feel a certain way when you leave his story.  He wants you to feel: happy, weepy, angry, optimistic, uplifted, forlorn or any of probably scores of emotions.  If I feel any of these and I know that it is precisely what the writer wants me to feel, I can’t wait to let him know that he has been successful.

The one emotion he doesn’t want you to feel is indifference.  You may not be able to put your finger precisely on the problem, but you’ve just invested a half hour in a story that ends with the main character being cut in two by a machete and, you’re sorry, Mr. Writer, but you just couldn’t care less about either half of him.  It … just … doesn’t … matter.  Obviously the writer has a problem.  And, to the extent that you want to be a helpful critter, you’ve inherited a problem, too.

*   *   *

            Now, the ending of a chapter in a novel is different.  The effects of the individual chapters are cumulative, characters and story lines growing or devolving, but always from the previous chapters.  If there are twenty chapters in the novel, the realistic novelist realizes that there are at least nineteen chances that the reader might put that novel down and, for whatever reason, never pick it up again.  He knows, as a writer, what he needs to do at each end of the nineteen chapters.  To the reader, the writer’s motivation is irrelevant, but the mechanics of its employment must be seamless, and grow naturally out of the preceding action:

Let’s return to Alice at her sixth period Spanish class.  Her desk is in the row nearest the door, while Bill’s desk is in the front row.  It is just minutes from the end of the period.  Her best friend in the whole world, Hortense, was the one who pointed out to her this morning about the frosting on her front tooth, but took away the sting by assuring her that Bill was myopic as well as vain, which was why he sat in the front row and why he didn’t wear glasses.  He probably hadn’t even been able to see her face, earlier, let alone the frosting on her tooth.  Relieved, Alice decides to follow Hortense’s Bill-winning strategy just as soon as the bell rings.

The bell rang.  Alice shuddered.  She stacked her books in a neat pile on the corner of her desk and gazed over the top of them at Bill.  She watched him stand, turn his licorice-black eyes in her direction and amble up the aisle toward the door. 

            Oh, my God, it was going to happen!  It was actually going to happen!  He would be passing by her desk.  A faint smile seemed to be twitching at the corners of his mouth.  Was it for her?  No, he grinned, instead, down at Greg who got to his feet, then punched him, playfully, on the shoulder.  Howard and Jenny laughed. 

Bill resumed again toward the door.  He was five feet from her … and now Hortense’s strategy seemed suddenly very, very stupid.  But, when he was two feet from her and the reasonable part of her said, “No,” the desperate part of her swept her forearm across the surface of her desk.  The books crashed to the floor.  The timing was all off.  The big Geography book landed on its end, did a half-flip and struck Bill smartly on the shin.  He shrieked, grabbing the injured leg in both hands and hopping on the other.  You could hardly call it hopping.  The third jump found him coming down on the corner of the Spanish Book.  It sledded out from under him and he landed indelicately on his back.  He lay there groaning while Alice slowly got to her feet, gathered her books from the floor (one had skidded all the way to the wall), cradled them in her arms as she quietly left the room. 

            Outside, Alice leaned back against her locker.  She was surprised her eyes were dry.  She felt strangely calm.  Of course, she would have to leave the school.  She might have to leave town.  She hoped Bill was all right.  But, really, it shouldn’t have happened.  Maybe, someone should convince him to own up to his myopia and wear glasses.

If the end of a chapter that you’ve completed has doors left open and questions left unanswered, aren’t you likely to turn that page?  Even if you have to leave it to go pee, aren’t you likely to rush back to the next chapter –assuming you don’t take your book with you in the first place?

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

*   Derrick Jangoral: Magical Mormon, By Aorla, Raven, FanStory, Jan. 14, 2006

** The First Five Pages, By Lukeman, Noah, Fireside Books, Copyright  @ 2000


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One Comment
  1. Janet permalink

    When I first started reading your Critter Critting blog, I set up an email folder called “Honing My Craft” and started storing the installments there after reading them. I have now created a sub-folder titled “Jay Squires Said.”

    It has been a long time since I sat in a writing class. My memory banks are thrilled that you are refreshing concepts stored there and the rest of my brain is energized by the tips and techniques you offer. Keep it coming, Mr. Squires!

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