Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Beginnings and Endings

The latest issue of Cadenza magazine is now out, as you will have gathered from editor Zoe King’s comment on my blog, below. And, as promised in my response to Zoe, I wanted to say something about the feedback on competition entries that she and co-editor Vanessa Gebbie provide in each issue. In her comment, Zoe said that while she agreed that literary competitions were ‘up to a point’ like lotteries, by reading the winning entries in conjunction with the judges’ comments, a writer would be in a far stronger position to do better in future competitions. She’s right. Last year I had a story longlisted in one of the Cadenza competitions. I rewrote it, taking account of the comments in the judges’ report, and subsequently sold the story to a national magazine.

This thing works!

In this issue’s report, beginnings and endings get a special mention. Along with the middle, I find beginnings and endings the hardest parts to write. One of the lessons I learnt from writing for women’s magazines was to get the essence of the story into the opening paragraphs. Often that means cutting away the first paragraphs you write and starting further into the story than you intended. Sometimes, you won’t know how far to cut away until you’ve finished the first draft and know how the story ends. The beginning should pose a narrative question of some kind; the ending should give the answer. Doris Betts said the first page of a story should have a lot to do with the last page, in the same way as the first line of a poem relates to the last line.

Easier said than done, but one ever said writing a really good story was easy!

Oddly enough, a week before the latest Cadenza came out, I gave members of my writing group a copy of Margaret Atwood’s story Happy Endings to study – if you don’t know it I can thoroughly recommend it.


Cadenza said...

I've said in the past that often, your original opening can be considered as dispensable. It's done its work in getting you into the story, but often, once you've gone beyond it, started 'motoring' as it were, your original opening can look like a 'graft' in terms of voice and feel. I suspect this is less the case with more established writers, but newer writers often 'feel their way' via openings, then find the story taking on a life of its own.

I think it's always a good idea to put the story away for a week or so then re-read it with fresh eyes, just to make sure the opening is doing the rest of the story justice.

Paul said...

Excellent advice, as ever :o)