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Strong Beginnings

Bait the barbed hook: Strong Beginnings with Miranda Hill

"...if you have a blank page, just write on it: what you start with in the writing is not necessarily where the reader will begin reading."

In light of our collaboration with Toronto's festival of the mind, Luminato, we have reached out to Canadian writers to find out how they begin their work! Today's author is Miranda Hill, who spoke to us about how she chose to begin her short story collection Sleeping Funny. Click here to read an excerpt from the first story in the collection!

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What came first for you—the story or the characters? 
I use whatever key I can—character, theme, plot, atmosphere—to get inside and begin to write. In “The Variance”, it was setting that came first—a setting so important that it almost functions as a character itself. And then I had to people that neighbourhood with actual characters to speak for the place. The other character that made an early appearance in the construction of this story was Michal, the new neighbour that sets the action in motion. But I knew that we would never hear from her—only see her from the outside in, through the eyes of the other characters.

The book is a collection of short stories about a variety of characters—a teenage girl in sex ed, a 19th century minister enduring a crisis in faith, a widow coping with her grief during the second world war, and professional women whose lives are transformed with the arrival of a new neighbour. How did you choose which story to begin with? 
Many of the stories in the book, and most of those you've mentioned, were written before there was the possibility of a collection on the horizon. So I didn't write them as a progression. I always have a lot of ideas for story possibilities and characters in my mind, and wondering what to pay attention to first can bog me down and keep me from writing at all. I just try to go with whatever idea is speaking most loudly at the time—and then shut the others out until I've completed that particular project. 

What were you hoping to achieve with this story? Is there a theme or character you wanted to introduce that would set the tone for the rest of the collection?
It wasn't until after the collection was complete that we settled on having this story come first—but it had looked like a contender for that opening slot for a while. I think it works because it influences how someone might read the rest of the collection, even though each story in Sleeping Funny is so different from all the others. I hope that people reading “The Variance” feel like it’s a place and a situation they might recognize, but arrive at a feeling of “Oh my, that wasn't what I expected,” when they are finished reading. Ensuring that the story ends up somewhere very different than the reader might imagine is one of my goals as a writer. I want readers to expect to be surprised.

Was there ever a time where this wasn't the beginning? If so, where had you initially started the action?
In this case, everything flowed from the opening—not just the action, but the pace, and the sense that there was something sinister beneath the lovely façade of old trees and good manners.

This story is narrated in the third person, beginning generally with the neighbourhood, and then moving into the perspectives of four of the neighbourhood women, including Imogene, whom we see here. Why did you decide to use the third person?
I knew I was going to have to be switching back and forth between the four main characters, relaying what was similar between them, then drilling down to find the differences, along with the variety of ways that they would experience changes in their own lives, because of Michal’s arrival. Third person was the way to do that.

How important is the beginning of a story to you? Do you feel pressure to introduce the main characters and themes right away? Is the transition from general to specific an effective way to begin as story?
Moving from general to specific can work very well. Setting the scene that way can give you a crane shot of the place so that you establish the characters’ surroundings and what it says about them. But that’s not the only way to do it. An immediate close up can work as well, or a sudden action, with no exterior context. There’s no one way to hook the reader, and I wouldn't want to fall into the rut of trying the same technique every time. But yes, it’s super important to me to nail the beginning. I don’t feel pressured by it—I feel invigorated by it. It’s your big chance and you have to get it right. Besides, beginnings are often much more entertaining to write and rewrite than middles or ends of stories. 

How about as a reader? 
If a book isn't interesting to me in the first several pages, I don’t continue—unless reading it is an assignment. And if I do have to keep reading, I rarely find that the book improves if the opening was poor. 

Do you have a favourite opening scene for a novel? 
Michael Crummey’s Galore is one of my favourite books. It begins with a man who is found in the body of a whale in an isolated fishing village in Newfoundland. The size of a whale, the universally recognized biblical resonance in that idea, the kind of setting and story we must be in, in order for us to buy this scene—well, you just don’t get bigger and more audacious than that. And yes: the rest of the novel lives up to the beginning. But let me give you an example from a short story, too. Lisa Moore has a story called “Carmen Has Gonorrhoea.” The first sentence is “I’m wishing for Carmen to get hit by a cement truck.” Tell me you don’t want to read on! 

What are the key elements to a strong beginning? 
Whether you come in from a distance, and focus in close, or start in close and move wider, whether you ease in, in the manner of a tale told by a dying fire or over a big mug of beer or whether you reach out and grab the readers by their delicate parts, each reader has to feel captured in a very short time. Minutes, if not seconds. As a writer, that’s the challenge and the fun. 

Are there any “don’ts” when it comes to beginnings?
Don’t let it drag. You can put a lot of info in your opening, but then you must tell it at a real clip. If you can’t, save that stuff for later in your story. Or maybe you don’t need it at all. 

What advice do you have for someone out there struggling to find where to begin their work (whether they are starting with a blank page or 400 pages of text)?
Well, if you have a blank page, just write on it: what you start with in the writing is not necessarily where the reader will begin reading. There are many, many words and rewrites in between. Start anywhere; just start. If you have 400 pages and don’t know where the story begins, look for something revealing, that sets up your character, or your setting or your plot, right off the top. Bait the hook, and make sure it’s a barbed one. Readers are very slippery things. 

Miranda Hill will be taking part in Luminato's Literary Picnic on Saturday, June 22 in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park.

Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky

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