In Good Hands: Strong Beginnings with Jessica Westhead
Punctuality is generally appreciated. But when it comes to writing your opening, start later than you think you should and give your reader a little bit of credit!
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 Jessica Westhead, who spoke to us about her short story "We Are All About Wendy Now" from her collection And Also Sharks! Click here to read the first few pages of that story.
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What came first for you—the story or the characters?
My stories usually start with a character—more specifically, with a flash of a real person’s personality (revealed by a telling action, like how they treat or react to someone else) that catches my attention, and which later grows into a fictional character. In “We Are All About Wendy Now,” though, the idea came first, when I heard an anecdote about a bunch of office employees rallying around a terminally ill co-worker. I imagined how certain people might treat that sad situation as an opportunity to escape the day-to-day drudgery of boring jobs—the sick colleague becomes a project, and a virtuous excuse to leave the office. Soon after, the three central characters arrived in my brain.
The book is a collection of short stories. How did you choose which story to begin with?
My wonderful editor Marc Côté and I worked together on the order of stories in And Also Sharks—we went back and forth with various suggestions—but he ultimately came up with the final arrangement. And though I knew what this order would be ahead of time, when I actually first flipped through the published book and skimmed through the stories in that sequence, I was thrilled by how perfect it felt. Marc found subtle connections between the stories that I never would have picked up on myself, because I was still so close to the work.
The beginning of “We Are All About Wendy Now” introduces many characters and the mundane details of their arrangement in the office space. This causes the reader to ask questions—who are all these people and what is the narrator’s relationship to them—but the text does not answer them quickly. How important is this type of slow reveal in a beginning?
I feel strongly that short stories should be page-turners, just like novels. The reader should want to keep reading. Think about the best anecdotes you've heard—they pull you in, and you’re eager to know what happens next. In “We Are All About Wendy Now,” I wanted to hint at what this particular office environment is like—including the clearly established pecking order—to set the scene for what’s going to happen. And I felt it was important to give the reader an immediate sense of what Eunice, the first-person narrator, is like—and how she feels about Sherry, the office bully—but I also wanted to create some suspense by not laying everything out.
How important is the beginning of a story to you?
Until I get to the editing stage, I try not to think too hard about how to present a story. I just want to get down as much as I can, so I've got something to work with that has a basic beginning, middle, and end, and some energy to it. Sometimes I’ll find that I've started too early—I've given information that I needed to know to finish the story, but that wouldn't be necessary or interesting for the reader. Generally, though, my beginnings remain more or less as I first get them down. I think that may be because if I don’t have a strong opening to start from, the story fizzles out for me. I need to hook myself, so that I’m compelled to keep writing. And then hopefully that translates over to the reader being compelled to keep reading. I think it’s important to introduce the main characters fairly quickly, and to give the reader an immediate sense of what they’re like. As for themes, though, unless I’m writing a grant application, I try to avoid thinking about themes in my fiction while I’m working on it. Otherwise the end result would probably feel quite forced and unnatural.
How about as a reader?
I don’t necessarily need to be grabbed right away, but I do need to feel like I’m in good hands with the author. If the writing is sloppy, I’ll quickly lose faith in the author’s ability, and then lose patience with the story they’re telling me. I feel the same way about the beginnings of movies—if I get that instant, satisfying sense that I’m in good hands, then I can relax and enjoy the ride.
Do you have a favourite opening scene for a novel?
I can’t think of a favourite or a surprise opening offhand, but right now I’m reading—and loving—The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and it begins beautifully. From the first paragraph, I was drawn into the story and intrigued by the characters. I felt like I’d been dropped into the middle of things, which is the perfect place to start.
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)?
Always start later than you think you need to. Dive right into a scene. Often, the background information (on a character, place, event, etc.) that you think is absolutely necessary to a reader’s understanding and appreciation of your story turns out to be absolutely unnecessary. You may have needed to know these details as the author, but plunking them down at the beginning of your story (or anywhere in your story, really) for the reader’s benefit will most likely backfire on you. The reader will be slogging through these extraneous facts and thinking, “Come on, get to it, already!”—and they’ll lose faith in your ability, and patience with your story.
Jessica Westhead will be taking part in Luminato's Literary Picnic on Saturday, June 22 in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park.
Photo credit: Derek Wuenschirs