Orca Blog for May: Your Critical First Impression

Most writers know that readers for literary journals have to review hundreds of submissions. In practical terms this means readers may only give each submission a paragraph or two to make a good impression before deciding to reject or consider the piece further. That doesn’t give a writer much of a chance. So what should a writer try to do to engage an Orca reader?

Your opening can establish character, setting, point of view, conflict, and other aspects. But more importantly it must establish the voice of the story, and create some connection to the character’s situation, also known as the stakes.

Let’s look at a couple of examples, one that doesn’t quite work, and one that does:

Here’s a first paragraph, written by me to approximate many of the stories we receive in our submission queue:

Jim Stone walked past the gates of O’Hare’s spacious Terminal B, checking his cell, searching for a restaurant he and his wife could go to after work; he had something important to tell her, and the right place would make it go more smoothly. It was his first week on the job. At this hour there were only two people in the waiting area—a young man sitting in a gray chair reading a book, and an old woman in a green coat with a leather bag on her lap.

I see dozens of stories that start off this way. Technically there’s nothing wrong with them. Above, we have character, setting, and even a hint to the story’s inherent conflict. But what’s missing is subtext. The details in this opening are mostly exterior.

Now here’s the first paragraph of Rachel Cusk’s Outline:

Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials. He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing that could help organizations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future. We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately I had to leave before we arrived at that subject. He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.

There are subtle clues in this paragraph that tell me the writer is immersed in the characters and the story. Exterior details are tied to interior reactions and emotions. This is much more like the way people experience their world, and therefore tends to draw the reader into the character’s reality.

By examining closer, we can see how this works.

Both paragraphs present a scene that has something to do with air flight. What’s the difference?

  1. In the first, notice the attention to factual background information: O’Hare’s Terminal B, first week on the job; the young man and the old woman are specifically described. In the second, notice that the information is more vague: a London club, a billionaire. We do not know exactly what these things are or what they look like. But then, people don’t view the world around them in terms of specific facts; instead they tend to incorporate what they are experiencing into a larger whole, as though each detail presented was part of a connected reality, and therefore doesn’t need the breakdown into explanation. In the weaker example, the things that should be specific are left vague, and the things that don’t truly matter are made specific. In the Cusk paragraph every sentence offers a window into a deeper meaning—that’s subtext.
  2. Interior versus exterior detail. The exterior detail must be connected to the protagonist’s interior experience, otherwise it becomes peripheral. It is not a “telling” detail. Look at the description at the end of the first paragraph: The terminal was empty except for an elderly woman and a young man. Although these things are visible to the protagonist, and register to his senses, none of them seems connected in any significant way to the protagonist’s problem or psychological state. They are essentially window dressing, placed by the author to establish the “scene,” as though mere detail could do this. In the second example, every external detail is connected to the protagonist’s inner reality. These are aspects that are important to the protagonist. For example, the billionaire promised “liberal credentials.” His open-necked shirt implies liberality, but the software he is developing serves corporations and seems designed to punish workers. He wants to start a literary magazine, which is important enough for her to stop before a trip to have lunch with him. The beauty of Cusk’s writing is that it works on a subconscious level, luring the reader in subtly. The information is just enough to get the reader to start thinking about more than what’s in the scene—this is the difference between telling a story and engaging the reader in a story.
  3. A glimpse into your character’s interior state reveals her interests, desires, and goals. In other words, it introduces the possibility of conflict, and conflict is the primary driver of good fiction. What does your character want, and what stands in her way of getting it? Yes, you can have external conflict such as a physical confrontation, but even the external conflict implies an internal state. We are not simply physical objects reacting to external stimuli.
  4. This depth of writing is not something that comes easily for most writers. It requires a deep understanding of character, to the point at which exterior observations and interior reactions become one. It also requires that the writer have confidence in presenting those connections as they are to the reader, without the boring, factual explanation that bogs down so many submissions. Part of the problem is that from our first conscious stirrings as children, and all through our educational experience, we are expected to explain ourselves to others. We are expected to provide simple answers. The world, we are taught, is not interested in our deeper emotions. The world is essentially a court of law that judges us based on what we did, not why we did it. As writers we have to overcome that. We have to learn to present not the facts of a protagonist’s existence, but the experience of what it is like to be that person. And that can only be done by connecting that exterior experience to interior desires and motivations. In simpler terms, it means that when we write the details of a scene or story, we need to ask why including those details matter.

– JP