Monday, July 12, 2010

The Almost Right Word


“The difference between the right word and the almost right word 
is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
Mark Twain



“An opening sentence should indicate conflict and structural incongruity. It should introduce a reversal of expectations.” This also sounds like the makings of a good romance. Conflict, the reversal of expectations, these are the elements of a relationship that keep us coming back for more. They are also the elements that shatter us if not kept in check. I enjoy Professor Stewart’s lectures. He relishes his words and uses them well. As a class, we review several opening sentences from various works of fiction and essays. This group analysis helps keep me engaged, and as a group we are beginning to open up a bit.

“An opening statement should be direct; there should be no attempt by the writer to infer a statement. No analysis – let the reader get it.” This is tougher then it sounds. The line between ambiguity and innuendo is often difficult to tread. I am usually surprised at critique groups to learn what readers failed to understand in my story, or read into the plot that I didn’t intend. This is where the concept of “show, don’t tell” gets tricky. I begin to wonder where in the story I am working on I  have intended the reader to see lightning, but only accomplished the flicker of a  lightning bug. It’s a pity Mark Twain isn’t available as an editor. Professor Stewart has offered his services to the workshop participants, but I’m beginning to get the feeling I may not be up to the criticism.

“Cross out all sentences until you get to the first sentence that actually has power and start your story there.” This is great advice. Not new, but the reinforcement of an already known technique is reassuring. Opening sentences really haven’t been a stumbling block for me, it’s the conclusion that’s a challenge. Professor Stewart ends the lecture with this statement, “Premature evaluation of the creative gift cuts off the flow. We have no choice but to accept what comes to us.” Then apparently we are required to chop it to bits, to ensure we strike directly. I think I’m still wandering a bit, straggling after lightning bugs. We leave the seminar today faced with the challenge of preparing a story for critique in workshop, some of us energized by the challenge and others shrinking with the fear of exposure. By tomorrow, our self induced seating chart will be cemented.

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