Seven things about opening sentences

Opening sentences to stories, I can just re-write, re-write and re-write the goddamn things until I go mad. And while I do, I can’t help imagining publishers flicking their eyes over my painfully wrought-out first sentence, it not immediately grabbing them for whatever reason, and then dropping the whole manuscript, written with blood, sweat and tears, onto the reject pile. And the thousands of other sentences after that first sentence remaining unread. Sigh. Opening sentences, they are such goddamn important things.

It’s a little like the plight of the pop song in today’s world. On Spotify, the first 30 seconds are critical. Payment doesn’t kick in until after that. Some call this the shit’n’click surfing habit: deciding something is shit within the first few seconds and clicking on to the next song … and the next… and the next…

Opening sentences are hard to write because so much is expected from them. Here are my seven things an opening sentence has to try to do.

  1. The first sentence has to indicate what’s to come in the story. That is, set up all kinds of expectations and raise questions in the reader’s mind, compelling them to want to reader on. What’s this all about? I think I’ll sit down and read on to find out.
  2. The first sentence should suggest the genre of the book.
  3. As it’s written in the first person, the first sentence ought to evoke the character of the protagonist (particularly if the story is entirely written from that point of view).
  4. It should suggest setting.
  5. It should suggest themes. Growing up, death, life, survival against all odds… Or in the case of Jane Austen, romance, then more romance, then yet more romance… (She really writes about so much more.)
  6. And more than anything else, an opening sentence should be captivating enough to grab your attention.

These are just off the top of my head, based on stuff I’ve read in the past. I’m sure there are plenty of other things.

Onto to something nicer. Ten opening sentences I like. I’ll let you decide if they’re doing any or all of the things I’ve listed above…

  1. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (Catcher in the Rye, JD Sallinger.)
  2. Then there was the bad weather. (Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway.)
  3. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984, George Orwell.)
  4. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.)
  5. When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. (The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.)
  6. Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. (Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler.)
  7. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis.)
  8. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. (The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley.)
  9. Today I woke from a thousand-year-old dream and found I was still a boy of 12 going on 13. (Do e-Mice Dream of Electric Running Wheels? This isn’t really one. I just made it up right this second. Sorry! But I kind of like it. Maybe I’ll write the rest of it one day.)
  10. Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville. The most famous opening line of all. Three words.)

As always, I want to leave you with some photos. I had also hoped to share with you my cut-up reworking of Queens’ Bohemian Rhapsody, but I’m still working on that. Perhaps I’ll share that with you some other time. Meanwhile, I have seven shots I took of local art while out and about in my local neighbourhood.

What Is Social Work Fiction?

Social Work Fiction

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on how my past social work experiences have had an influence on my story writing and I’ve begun to use the term ‘social work fiction’. I quite like it, enough to even include it at the top of my website.

It’s hardly an established genre, obviously nothing like crime fiction, science fiction or literary fiction, but a quick scout around the internet does reveal that the phrase is being used. Well, it’s being used a tiny bit. At any rate, it’s working for me. I think it has a nice easy flow to it. Social work fiction. It almost sounds like an established genre.

So what kind of writing might one expect when referring to something as social work fiction? What fictional ideas or images does the term summon up for potential readers?

A few rather overused social worker images spring to mind. Such as the well-meaning ‘do-gooder’ (I hate that expression, by the way, how did there come to be a derogatory term for people who do good?). She is a woman, probably blonde, young and attractive, and she works at a downtown (read New York) charity of some kind, and she ultimately needs rescuing by a worldly-wise, gritty man. I seem to recall a few 70s films with romantic subplots like this. Probably all starring Clint Eastwood.

And then there’s the other kind of social worker image found in fiction, probably even more common. An older, middle-class woman in a dowdy outfit (perhaps a twin-set outfit, pearls and glasses). She’s a ‘busy body’ – well-meaning (again) but misguided. And she raps on the door of a troubled family’s home only to worsen their plight by attempting to remove the children and place them into the black hole of government foster care.

And I can think of a third kind. A woman again (well, it is a female dominated profession) and she sits silently in a windowless room, watching while two policemen interview a wayward child or teenager.

Cobra Bubbles: not the regular-looking social worker. (C) Walt Disney

Lilo with Cobra Bubbles (right). I think you’ll agree, he’s not the regular-looking social worker.

Beyond the cliches, there are also some quite oddball representations. Lilo and Stitch is one film that immediately jumps to mind. The social worker is a man for starters (hooray for me), he’s ex-CIA and he goes under the name Cobra Bubbles. But of course, he still wants to place Lilo into foster care. At least he’s a little different to look at.

A social work fiction story with a marvelous difference is the horror flick from 1971, The Baby. This film is bizarre. A social worker investigates the ‘Wadsworth family’ – a mother, two daughters, and an adult son who behaves like a baby. Literally like a baby. ‘Trapped by three women with no way out,’ goes the pitch. The trailer is well worth checking out. It’s on IMDB here.

A social work home visit to the Wadsworths.

A social worker ‘homevisits’ the Wadsworths.

Happily, recently I’ve witnessed more respectful and inventive portrayals of social worker characters in fiction: competent care workers conducting supportive interventions to create positive change and secure social justice for their clients. But then of course, as drama demands, there’s an upheaval of some kind – a gruesome murder, perhaps – which upturns things and gets the story rolling.

While mostly documentaries, the blog site A Small Good Thing provides an interesting list of 23 powerful films ‘that shed light on social work, social workers, and the important themes and issues that social workers devote themselves to every day’.

Putting all of this to one side, for me, use of the term social work fiction is a personal thing. It’s a way for me to describe what I am writing and something I can fit alongside the more recognisable genre I might be writing in. For example, young adult fantasy. Social work fiction, for me, is a mindset. It’s a part of my writing voice.

So ultimately, that’s what I mean by social work fiction. It’s the lens through which I’m looking at the world I’m creating. For me, social work fiction stories are not just stories that happen to include a social worker in some way.

My play-around image for Christopher Reuben and the Curious World beneath His Garden

Some play around imagery for Christopher Reuben and the Curious World beneath His Garden.

For example, my latest completed draft novel, Christopher Reuben and the Curious World beneath His Garden, is about a 14-year-old boy with a strange new illness who escapes into an extraordinary world beneath his garden – a world that is under attack by a deadly weed, just as his own body is under attack by a deadly virus. Besides fantasy stories such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (Gaiman’s take on Kipling’s The Jungle Book), Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz, to write the story I drew on the humbling experiences working as a social worker in HIV/AIDS and now cancer.

My traditionally-published book.

My traditionally-published sci-fi about a dangerous and highly addictive virtual video game.

In my first, traditionally published book, EleMental, I explore addiction. Set in 2050, a group of kids play a virtual game deliberately designed to be highly addictive (it’s meant for asteroid miners, to prevent them from wanting to go on leave back to Earth). As they play the deadly game, their perceptions of when they are in a game and when they are in the real world because hopelessly blurred until they find themselves trapped in the game world. While writing the story, I draw on my time working with those recovering from alcohol and drug addictions. It’s quite a complex book for a young adult novel.

The latest project I’m still busily working on does happen to feature a social worker. He is the main character, and it’s a novel for adults for a change. Set in the eighties, it’s about a group of social workers (and one in particular) struggling to be effective within the turmoil of a busy infectious diseases hospital that’s caught in the grip of the AIDS epidemic.

My social work identity makes up an important part of my writing voice, no matter what kind of story I end up writing. Sci-fi, fantasy, reality… It’s not deliberate, it’s just a part of me, as your experiences are an important part of you.

***

In recent times I have come to enjoy finishing my posts with some recent photos.

A palm tree that once lived near me…

A palm tree down the street is moving out. Off to a cafe on the other side of town.

A palm tree off to a new residence – outside a cafe on the other side of town.

An orchid in my back garden is still going strong. It was a gift to my wife 15 years or more ago…

A cool orchid in my back garden. 15 years old?

I water it when I think to. It does the rest.

Lastly, two pics of Robert De Niro’s T-shirt from the fabulous New York, New York film.

Robert De Niro's shirt.

Robert De Niro’s T-shirt. (From a Martin Scorsese exhibition I went to recently.)

Here it is, in the film…

Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro. Such a great shot.

Robert De Niro’s T-shirt in context. (With Liza Minnelli.)

So long for now. 🙂

Cut up about Bowie

Bowie 73

To honour Bowie and the many years of wonderful music he gave us, I’m presenting this post on a songwriting technique he made great use of – the cut-up technique. It’s a method that has intrigued me since I was a teenager and I’ve made use of at different times myself, especially to jumpstart ideas or take an idea further if I can.

Bowie random words

The cut-up technique has been around a long time now and was famously used by 60s writers such as William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch – not something I’ve read, I have to admit), and apparently even earlier by the likes of TS Elliott (Wasteland). I think it was Burroughs who described it as a ‘method for altering reality’.

The method is relatively straightforward and there are lots of opportunities for you to apply your own creative impulses as you go. You simply select some lines of text and cut them up (from as little as one word, for example, to word-strings of about five words), mix them up as much as you like, and then rearrange them into new text, cutting out any bits you feel don’t fit as you go.

Here’s Bowie explaining the process in Cracked Actor, a wonderful 70s BBC doco about him that you might want to check out in full, if you haven’t seen it…

(Just by the by, it was after Nicholas Roeg saw Bowie in this documentary that he decided to approach him for the lead role in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie was exactly the look he was after for his alien.)

Not long after this documentary was aired on TV, I recall reading — in an NME, perhaps — about Bowie assiduously applying the cut up technique during the creation of the incredible Bowie-Eno trilogy of albums Low, Heroes and Lodger. If you check out any one of these albums, you can easily see that the cut-up method was probably used to kickstart many of his song’s lyrics, with their diverse images, including ‘Blackout’, as shown below, from Heroes.

Cut up lyrics for 'Blackout'.

Cut up lyrics for ‘Blackout’. (These were on display at the ‘Bowie Is’ exhibition.)

Bowie went on to co-develop the Verbasizer, an early Mac app which he used to randomly cut up to as many as 20 sentences in one go, to then reassemble as song lyrics. Late last year, I was lucky enough to get along to the extraordinary ‘Bowie Is’ exhibition when it arrived here in Melbourne. Amongst the many costumes and interesting paraphernalia on display, there was also the Verbasizer on an old Mac.

Here he is again, demonstrating it…

‘A technological dream’ — I like that.

Bowie is meant to have written Hallo Spaceboy (from 1995’s Outside, an album produced by Eno, as it happens) with the aid of his Verbasizer. And now, courtesy of the internet, we can all access a version of the Verbasizer to aid us in writing song lyrics, if we so wish. It’s called the Cut Up Machine and it’s right here (but come back, won’t you?).

As a test, I cut and pasted the lyrics to Blackstar (the title and first song on Bowie’s last album) in the Cut Up Machine’s text box field, clicked the cut-it-up button a bunch of times (to really jumble up those words), and then pieced together the following from the block of words the little app spat out. ‘Died Spirit’, below, is what I came up with. (The last line, by the way, came fully intact — very fitting.)

Died Spirit
I’m why you’re the execution.
Died Spirit at the centre.
I’m open-hearted.
But I’m not a smile.

At times I’m of daydreams.
On the day of talking,
I was upside-down and at the centre.
I kneel and take a solitary star.
An execution star.

A passport to a diamond place.
I’m bravely solitary.
But I’m all yours when I bravely flash.

I’m an angel of want, an angel of all.
A sacred else star.
I kneel at your side.
I died and rose a blackstar.

I quite like it. It’s a cut up about Bowie dying created through his own words and through a creative process he often employed.

I also tried the cut-up method in the more traditional, manual style, jumbling the text up on a page in front of me. For the original text source, I took the last line of every last song from Bowie’s studio albums (because, what the hell, I just thought that would be an interesting thing to do). The end result feels less random and less original in its imagery than ‘Died Spirit’ above. It’s as if, though I tried to be random, because I was more involved in the cut-up process, more of Bowie’s original images survived. It feels less successful than when I utilised the Verbasiser-like app, but it’s OK. Anyway, here it is…

Knows what the noise can do
In this rain
dies softly a supergod.
A failing star.

It’s up to you and me,
to get our feet back.
To shake it up.
To move it up.

We’re no strangers
and it’s no game.
The last of the dreamers.
Alive or dead.

The last, wild, kiss-me-goodbye
knows-what-the-noise-can-do
king.

I don’t want knowledge.
I want certainty.
I want the bloody obscene.

Gimme your hands.
Gimme your hands.
Cause you’re wonderful.

And so, at last, a final few words from Bowie on songwriting…

‘…it’s the realization, to me at least, that I’m most comfortable with a sense of fragmentation … The idea of tidy endings or beginnings seems too absolute. It’s not at all like real life.’
–David Bowie

And some final pictures…

David Bowie with William Burroughs, February 1974.

David Bowie with William Burroughs, February 1974.

 

Aladdin Sane era, 1973.

Aladdin Sane period, 1973.

 

A shot from the 'Bowie Is' exhibition.

A shot from the ‘Bowie Is’ exhibition.

 

Bowie, 1966. This has been a favourite shot of mine for a long time.

Bowie, 1966. This has been a favourite shot of mine for a long time.