I don’t have to work on anything right now, so I’m procrastinating with a meme

Several of my fanfic-writing friends have been doing a meme wherein they post the first lines of their last twenty-one fics. Because I don’t feel like doing anything more mentally taxing right now than faffing around on the computer listening to music, and also because that’s a lie and Anthropologist Brain is having thinky thoughts but doesn’t mind listening to music while faffing around collating stuff, I’m going to do this twice: once with fanfic, and then once with my original short stories. I want to see how they compare.


This is going to be dominated by my Yuletide efforts, since this past winter was the year of “if I write ALL THE FICS, I won’t try to write even more next year.”

She was mostly deaf even before the percussion grenade went off; now she can’t hear a damn thing. — Can You Hear Me Now?

They have to move the desk further away from the window, which makes the whole room feel wrong. — The Wrong Side

He didn’t know he was being watched until he looked up and saw the forest man staring at him. — Echoes of the Wolf

No-one will ever say at a child’s funeral, “Well, it’s a tragedy, but at least the unpleasant one died.” — An Abecedary of Tragic Ends, Explicated for the Reader

They made a pair of interesting contrasts: the English librarian and the American archaeologist; one barely more than a girl, the other a woman grown; one half-Egyptian and dark, the other, by ancestry at least, pure red-headed Scot. — No Harm Ever Came from Digging Up the Past

“Hey, have you guys seen the nominations?” Ethan asked, sliding in next to Zach at the lunch table. — Unlikely

The calluses have faded from your fingertips, leaving them tender and soft. — If Your Hands Are Cold, and the Fiddle Is Old

Strychnine is bitter, but the most pleasant to work with. — Dying Old

Holdaway never told Freddy about Joe Whitmore. — Stories Untold

When the boy who should have been a piemaker was nine years, thirty-three weeks, six days, twenty-three hours, and thirty-four minutes old, someone found out what he could do. — It ends in a small white room

It wasn’t love that did her in, whatever Madmartigan thinks. — Impossible Things

The sound was faint enough for Aviendha to wonder if she had imagined it. — A Thousand Paths in a Single Step

The evening would have been a giant media circus even if it had just been the Tony Stark Show Featuring Tony Stark and His Ego. — Oh So Pretty

Genji always struggled not to grin when he saw Detective Kobayashi. — On Dragonfly Wings

Without fear, without weakness, without hesitation.A Prepared Spirit

The first time Lucy called him “Your Majesty,” he almost snapped and said something unforgivable. — Majesty

He falls. — Broken by the Light

This is not a tale the wolfcarls tell. — Die erste Königin

Things They Don’t Teach You in Auror Training: #1 – Forget the Unforgivable Curses.Ouroboros

Hamlet never even said he was leaving. — A Devilish Exercise

Captain Li Shang stood stiffly in the corner of the tent, trying to pretend he did not hear the argument between his father and Chi-Fu. — Dài lóng wénshēn de nǚhái

Next, the original stories. For these, I’m going to take them in reverse order of writing (newest first), and include some that haven’t sold yet. No novels, though — only shorter fiction. (I figure novels are playing too different of a game to be useful for comparison.)

Let me tell a tale of my father’s kin, for in me runs their blood, and so to me falls this burden: to keep the knowledge, the old-thought, the shape of how it began, as my father gave it to me. — “What Still Abides”

The skies were clear and the winds fair for Plymouth, the Hesperides flying before them like a swan, her wings unfurled from the yardarms and belling out full. — “False Colours”

She was never happier than when she Danced the Warrior. — Dancing the Warrior

The coyotes of Mexicali were bold. — “Coyotaje”

“I want to make a map of Driftwood.” — “The Ascent of Unreason”

Peter found her slippers just inside his office door. — “Mad Maudlin”

They offered him a beautiful woman, power over men, victory in war. — “The Wives of Paris”

He spends his days sitting at the window, like a maiden in some troubadour’s tale. — “Two Pretenders”

Henry Garnet’s breathing was the only sound inside the room, marking the passage of time like a ragged and desperate clock. — “And Blow Them at the Moon”

Abstract: This study seeks to establish a hierarchy of efficacy for various antipathetic materials and delivery mechanisms thereof as used in the extermination of lycanthropes. — “Comparison of Efficacy Rates for Seven Antipathetics as Employed Against Lycanthropes”

With his fangs still buried in the thick meat of his own tail, the great serpent says, “I wondered when you would come.” — “Serpent, Wolf, and Half-Dead Thing”

In her first light, Noirin never thought it strange that her world should be only a few blocks square, and that on the other side of the Palace Way (whose Palace had vanished before her grandmother was born) there should be a place where the people had four arms and water always fell from the sky. — “Remembering Light”

Dear Mom and Dad: The good news is, nobody’s dead anymore. — “Love, Cayce”

They found him in a narrow alley, within smelling distance of the riverside wharves and the pestilential tenements that crowded them, with his throat slit from ear to ear. — Deeds of Men

The new ground of the milpa showed like a scar torn into the forest. — “Chrysalis”

1. In the beginning God made the world, and on the sixth day he made creatures in his image. — “The Gospel of Nachash”

For eleven years Hathirekhmet was a goddess, and then they sent her home. — “Once a Goddess”

I have not spoken with my own voice in nearly seven years. — “Kingspeaker”

The stars winked in conspiratorial excitement as the two travelers flew by, borne on nighttime winds. — “The Last Wendy”

Among the noble flowers that have gathered for the ball, the hopeful young ladies in lavender and spring green and pink, she stands out like a rose, red-black as venous blood. — “Footprints”

The king was dying, and nothing in the world could save him. — “A Heretic by Degrees”

And now, thoughts on how they compare.

I am not surprised in the slightest to discover that in fanfic, I am vastly more likely to pull the trick of not introducing the character(s) right away, but just referring to them with pronouns. Where I do the same thing in original fiction, odds are good that I’m retelling some existing story or bit of history. In other words, that’s a stunt that works best when you have a certainty or at least decent chance of your reader knowing the character already. They don’t need to know that person is the one referred to; sometimes you can get a good effect from briefly hiding the character’s identity. (Or permanently. In some of these stories, like “Footprints,” I never give a name at all: you can tell it’s Cinderella gone wrong.) But the technique only works when there’s a shared familiarity there. I have no reason at all to withhold Noirin’s name (to pick one example); it means nothing to the reader, and so treating it as a revelation is not only pointless but counterproductive.

I am also not surprised in the slightest to discover that while I may begin my short stories with description or other forms of scene-setting, I almost never do the same with fanfic. They begin with characters, not context. This is because a) context is often unnecessary — the fanfic reader already knows what the world is like, and b) character may be what the fanfic reader has shown up to the story for in the first place. To continue using “Remembering Light” as my example: I can’t give you Noirin’s conflict right away, because you don’t know who she is (and therefore have no reason to care), and her conflict also depends on me first establishing the environment of Driftwood. But I don’t have to tell the reader that Aviendha is a warrior recently forced to put aside her weapons; they already know that, and I can jump right into her dealing with an intruder.

What’s interesting to me is that I don’t feel like I had to learn to approach the stories differently, when I first waded into Yuletide a couple of years ago. Looking at those first fics (which haven’t made it into this list), the only one that starts at all like an original story is also the one that starts from the perspective of an original character. It seems to have been natural for me to follow the structure of a fanfic, where you don’t have to establish context to the same degree. Is that because it’s somewhat like jumping to an interesting scene in a novel? Or something else? I don’t know. The next question, of course, is whether fanfic has changed the way I start my short stories . . . but really, if I’m going to blame anything for a difference there, it’s going to be all the time I’ve spent writing in a vaguely eighteenth- or nineteenth-century voice. (Man, is that hard to get rid of.)

This is good stuff for me to think about, though, because I’m going to be teaching a three-week writing course this summer (more on that later), and my students, who will be twelve and thirteen years old, may very well have written fanfic. So I’ll want to watch out for the habits of that genre, where they may shortchange some of the work an independent short story has to do.

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0 Responses to “I don’t have to work on anything right now, so I’m procrastinating with a meme”

  1. scribble_myname

    I think the biggest difference for me was that I hadn’t the faintest idea of the context of most of your fanfiction (mostly not my fandoms), but they were by far more likely first sentences to keep me reading. They were flat out more interesting and vivid, despite the lack of names.

    • Marie Brennan

      Interesting. Can you tell me which ones really drew you (or, conversely, which ones didn’t)? I have some theories as to why that might be, but I’d need to know which ones had that effect before I could really guess.

      • scribble_myname

        DREW ME:

        She was mostly deaf even before the percussion grenade went off; now she can’t hear a damn thing. — Can You Hear Me Now?

        They have to move the desk further away from the window, which makes the whole room feel wrong. — The Wrong Side

        He didn’t know he was being watched until he looked up and saw the forest man staring at him. — Echoes of the Wolf

        No-one will ever say at a child’s funeral, “Well, it’s a tragedy, but at least the unpleasant one died.” — An Abecedary of Tragic Ends, Explicated for the Reader

        Strychnine is bitter, but the most pleasant to work with. — Dying Old

        It wasn’t love that did her in, whatever Madmartigan thinks. — Impossible Things

        The evening would have been a giant media circus even if it had just been the Tony Stark Show Featuring Tony Stark and His Ego. — Oh So Pretty

        Without fear, without weakness, without hesitation. — A Prepared Spirit

        The first time Lucy called him “Your Majesty,” he almost snapped and said something unforgivable. — Majesty

        This is not a tale the wolfcarls tell. — Die erste Königin

        And for the ORIGINALS:

        She was never happier than when she Danced the Warrior. — Dancing the Warrior

        Peter found her slippers just inside his office door. — “Mad Maudlin”

        With his fangs still buried in the thick meat of his own tail, the great serpent says, “I wondered when you would come.” — “Serpent, Wolf, and Half-Dead Thing”

        Dear Mom and Dad: The good news is, nobody’s dead anymore. — “Love, Cayce”

        I have not spoken with my own voice in nearly seven years. — “Kingspeaker”

        Each one of these gave me an immediate intriguing image or question. They made me want to know more.

  2. diatryma

    At Alpha, we do a first lines exercise involving people reading aloud and seeing via hands when the audience is hooked. I think it’s a very misleading exercise, not least because it vastly favors jokes and punchlines, mostly in the form of dead bodies, over a slow rise in tension.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I don’t remember who came up with the term “eyeball kick,” but focusing too hard on the first line leads to a lot of eyeball kicks: sentences designed to Get! Your! Attention! But they focus so hard on doing so, with wackiness or corpses or whatever, that it often starts the story spinning too wildly in an un-useful direction.

      • diatryma

        It’s also hard to say when you are definitely hooked on a story– it’s easier for me to point to a line and say, “This is where I rolled my eyes and gave up.”

        • Marie Brennan

          In hindsight, I can pick apart the things a good opening did which made it work for me, but that’s not the same thing as knowing the point at which I got hooked, no.

  3. Marie Brennan

    A lot of it is point of view. “No Harm” is written from an omnisicent perspective, which means it’s liable to begin in a more scene-setting fashion — if only because that’s how Victorian stories tend to begin, and they’re our major model for omniscient writing. The success of that approach, I think, depends more heavily on the quality of your prose than other approaches might: if you set the scene elegantly, with more subtle hooks buried into it, then readers (the ones who like that sort of thing) will read on. First person is more likely to live or die on the voice of the narrator, because in first person, voice is character — and plot is character, and description is character, and exposition is character, because everything’s being filtered through that one person’s lens. Third person limited is the one where the actual words are the most invisible, and the thing being presented by them moves most clearly to the fore.

    I might have some theories about that tendency (e.g., a structural corrective to spec fic writers’ love of world-building, a historical reaction against lit fic’s legacy of faux-Carver mood pieces, a market-driven imperative towards hookiness, etc.), but that sort of survey would require a lot of annoying research into the history of writing advice.

    Oh, but I’d love to see the result. 🙂 I suspect all three of those things are true, to one degree or another. Certainly old-school SF was much more tolerant of “I will infodump at you for two pages before we get to the actual story” than we are today, and also the cult of the short attention span has risen in prominence.

    Novels vs short stories — if it were me, I’d say it’s because I tend to think of more novels as being Great Works than I do briefer pieces, and therefore they’re more likely to stay in my memory. Short stories are generally disposable pleasures. And I’m more likely to re-read a novel, too. But a while back there was another discussion of great first novel lines, and when I went back to look at my favorite books, I found that many of them had opening lines which, when taken in isolation, sound quite dull.

    • samedietc

      Well, now I’m off to look through some favorite short stories to see how they open (let’s say, 1-3 paragraphs worth of opening). It’s always nice when a topic for a blog post falls in my lap.

      Regarding a totally different medium: this conversation does remind me of when I was taking sketch comedy classes at the Second City; and sketch there (at least in that class) is largely done without props. So, like in improv, you’d want some early dialogue to set the scene–and it was always fun to see what you could get away with and still have those opening lines sound natural. (As Samuel Delaney (I think) points out, Shakespeare’s “Well, this is the forest of Arden.” is pretty much scene-setting at its most transparent.)

  4. Anonymous

    Congratulations!

  5. Anonymous

    Re: And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood

    Because sarcasm is SUCH a trying tribulation.

    Oh, the irony.

  6. Anonymous

    Congrats to you and to the students: it sounds like an amazing experience all round.

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