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revised and expanded edition published 1996 by Vintage
Copyright © Carmel Bird 1988, 1996. All rights reserved
Dear Writer first published by McPhee Gribble 1988
published in the UK by Virago
published in an interim edition of 100 copies by the author 1996
LETTER THREE: Top and Tail
Looking at Beginnings and Endings
Courage is the first essential -- Katherine Anne Porter
You will often hear me speak of the kinds of courage required
by the task of writing. One sort of courage is that needed to
take a cold look at the first and last sentences of paragraphs
of your story. Having looked at these you sometimes need the courage
to delete them.
Look at your first paragraph which is a description of the night
and the graveyard, and which leads up to the scream. (You will
by now have decided that the scream does not need to be 'blood-curdling'
and that the idea of its splitting the night like lightning brings
in an unlikely image which we could do without.) My question is:
Do you need any of this first paragraph at all? But this, you
will say, is what sets the whole story off; this scream that seems
to come from the graveyard in the middle of the night is what
the story is all about. How can I leave it out? Why should I leave
All I am suggesting at this stage is that you look at the story
without that paragraph. The story now begins: 'Amelia Grove sat
bolt upright in her chair'. This is a much more promising beginning.
I am interested in it at once. I wonder who Amelia is, why she
is sitting, and what causes here to sit up suddenly. I say it
is promising, but I think it could be improved. (I hear you groan).
How would it be if you just wrote: 'Amelia sat up'. How would
it be if she had a name which was not so quaint? What if the first
thing you wrote were: 'Barbara sat up'? Why did you want to tell
the reader that her full name was Amelia Grove? You did this to
let the reader know roughly the age and a little of the personality.
She is a bit of an old busybody, and the name signals some of
this information. Names must be consistent with the character's
age and type up to a point, but when a writer relies heavily on
the name to tell the reader what the character is like, the writer
is in danger of creating a poor caricature, and of becoming lazy
about the real sketching of the character, of writing a stock
The material in the first paragraph, which I suggest you abandon,
is the material going through your mind when you begin to write
the story. You think: 'I will set this story in a graveyard at
midnight and the trees will be spooky and the tombstones will
be creepy, the shadows eerie. Then a piercing scream will be heard.'
You are free to think this, and you probably need to think this,
but you do not need to tell it to the reader all at once as you
I warn my new students that when they find themselves beginning
a story with the description of a scene, they need to beware in
case they are boring the reader with the writer's own private
thoughts on how to begin, how to change gear from what we call
the real world to the world of fiction. The first rule of writing
anythign at all is not to be boring, and this gear-changing is
particularly numbing for the reader.
Look at some opening sentences by four modern writers who do not
waste time changing gear in this way.
Soon after my mother died, I packed my things and went to live
in her home at the estuary. -- Georgia Savage
I was the only man among nine women. -- Gerald Murnane
I met my husband at the airport, and there he told me some things
that wiped the smile off my face. -- Helen Garner
Before this journey is over I intend to speak to the woman. --
I chose those opening lines at random from books on the shelf
next to my writing table. It so happens that all four writers
have begun their stories in the first person. In my next letter
I will discuss the question of whether you write a story in the
first or the third person.
Before leaving the matter of surgery for 'The Scream at Midnight',
we must look at the final paragraph. The writing is much stronger,
simpler and more self-assured than it was in the first paragraph,
as though the story itself has given you courage and practice.
But you should consider removing that final sentence: 'Thank God!'
she sighed at last as she gently closed the front door and stood
for a long time in the darkened hallway'.
Here you have written a kind of stage direction which is unnecessary.
Try ending the story where you say: 'The car seemed to slow down
for just a moment. Then it speeded up and was gone'.
You need to be brave to remove the beginning and the ending of
your story. If you are brave enough, your story will begin to
change and improve. Rumer Godden said: 'It takes a lot of courage
to be a writer'.
Look at this ending to Eudora Welty's story 'A Visit of Charity'.
Marian never replied. She pushed the heavy door open into the
cold air and ran down the steps.
Under the prickly shrub she stooped and quickly, without being
seen, retrieved a red apple she had hidden there.
Her yellow hair under the white cap, her scarlet coat, her bare
knees all flashed in the sunlight as she ran to meet the big bus
rocketing through the street.
'Wait for me!' she shouted. As though at an imperial command,
the bus ground to a stop.
She jumped on and took a big bite out of the apple.
Writers are sometimes puzzled and anxious about how to start a
story. Well, I think it is important to realise that no matter
what your first effort at starting looks like, the main thing
is to start. Remember you can always change it. You are in charge
of what you are writing, and you can alter, delete, add in any
way you wish. Christina Stead once got her story started by writing
the first part in French -- she didn't leave it in French, but
she had made a beginning.
With best wishes,