Notes from the Slush Pile by Al Kratz

Beginnings

 

I’d like to share some ideas on beginnings that occurred to me after a recent run through the slush pile.

REM wrote a great song called Begin the Begin on their album, Life’s Rich Pageant. It started: Birdie in the hand for life’s rich demand.

A rich, demanding opening is extremely critical to flash fiction. I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of the first few sentences or the opening paragraph. After reading a dozen of these in a row, they can accumulate similar issues. Stories with strong openers rise to the top. It’s a striking difference. Trumpets have been known to sound.

Here are two things that seem to go wrong with many starts:

  • Lack of urgency
  • Lack of clarity

These qualities are often inherent or implied. You can’t always just insert urgency here, but many stories without it act as if you can simply insert reader here. They start firing away. Things happen. Characters are added. We’re off and running in a world that may be realistic, but it lacks a substance that demands our time or promises to separate us from the crowd. Lack of clarity is closely related. Unclear stories leave us wondering what the story is. Where am I? Why am I here?

I’m thinking about instantiation. Fiction’s equivalent of the Big Bang.

Jeff Landon’s Five Fat Men in a Hot Tub is an example of using these qualities explicitly. The questions of Clarity and Urgency are directly used as drivers in the narrative:

“Check us out! Five fat men in a hot tub. Snow falls fast, fat flakes already turning into sleet. We lift our flushed faces to the sky and sink lower into the bubbles and water. Why are we here? We are here to ski and drink and help our friend, Billy.”

Check us out! An urgent demand that the reader break from their world. This allows the follow up with a “Just the facts, ma’am” kind of sentence that on its own may appear simple, but in between the call to attention and the presentation of details, it serves a clear and urgent open. We know where we are. We know who is there. We are promised it will be worth checking out. After the call, the fact setter, and the descriptive sentence, comes the direct question. Why are we here? There to help Billy, but the ski and drink, and the tone suggest the gathering is about more than their friend.

An opener with Clarity and Urgency will be re-read because the reader wants to. At best, an unclear story will be re-read because the reader has to in order to continue. Without urgency, they may not want to.

*

Leonora Desar’s My Mother in the Floorboards is an example of compression requiring Clarity and Urgency. The story is only 263 words. There is no room for waste.

“My mother said she would haunt me. And she did. She haunted. She haunted in the floor. She didn’t have the nerve to go up in the sky and haunt like a proper mother, she had to go into the floor.”

The first sentence does so much in seven short words. It establishes tone and the personality of the mother. It promises to haunt the reader. The next three and two word sentences reinforce this and their staccato beats establish rhythm. The next five word sentence takes the turn. This isn’t a standard haunting (if that’s a thing). It’s a floor haunting. The piece increases clarity and urgency at the same time. The next sentence is 24 words and repeats the building blocks as well as adding to the personality of the narrator. Now, there isn’t only a stubborn mother, but also a daughter’s voice calling her out. We are 41 words into 263 and ready for the payoff of the next 222.

*

A friend of mine from a writers group recently shared a flash draft that I feel had a clear and urgent opener. The basic scene is an encounter with a co-worker in the breakroom.

Here are the opening sentences:

He’s a beautiful danger. This kind of beauty incites violation.

A story without Urgency might start with the breakroom setting, describing typical details. Eventually, it might bring the co-worker in. Eventually, it might get to the atypical detail of a beautiful danger capable of inciting violation. A story without Urgency might lull you into missing what’s worth paying attention to.

Note that Clarity doesn’t mean knowing everything. We don’t know who he is. We don’t know why he’s a danger. We don’t even know what a violation is for sure, but it sure sounds spicy. We know we have a story. We have an encounter that isn’t typical. We have a narrator who is alive. We are invited to find out about this danger and what will be done about the risk of violation. The writer has instantiated a story about handling an encounter. It’s clear about the pressing facts and implies we will get to the unclear stuff. It loses Clarity and Urgency if it wavers or ignores the pressing. If it has nothing to promise.

*

Clarity and Urgency often work behind the scenes. Quiet and Loud.

Clarity and Urgency often demand trumpets. Let there be music.

REM ended the chorus of Begin the Begin this way:

Answer me a question, I can’t itemize. I can’t think clearly, look to me for reason. It’s not there, I can’t even rhyme, here in the begin…Example, the finest example is you.

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Al Kratz is a fiction editor at New Flash Fiction Review, and writes reviews for Alternating Current. His flash fiction was awarded at the Bath Flash Fiction Award in the spring of 2016 and fall of 2017. His novella-in-flash was shortlisted at Bath in 2018. Recent work of his has been published by Hobart, Bending Genres, Reflex, and Bull.