Learning from Jackson and Bradbury

First sentences receive lots of attention when reading like a writer. They should.

Endings are harder to study because they are more dependent on the rest of the story. (One way to address this is to read much shorter stories and while that can have its own complications, I like it.)

Consider the ending of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” (Spoilers ahead.)

The children had stones already, and someone gave Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.

Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed and they they were upon her.

The first two paragraphs of the story give this ending its power because they present an mundane town gathering with two slightly odd, but not too troubling exceptions: a lottery is being held and stones are being gathered. Readers discover the connection between the stones and the lottery as the story ends. So, one strategy for an effective ending is a return to earlier elements that shows a connection readers might not expect.

Ray Bradbury’s “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” does something similar. It starts with a house making an announcement to occupants who are no longer there. The story follows the house through the process of its day and through a fire that destroys it. Here is the ending:

Smoke and silence. A great quantity of smoke.

Dawn showed faintly in the east. Among the ruins, one wall stood alone. Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam:

“Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is . . .”

This last sentence also returns to earlier story elements. It shows that a process begun in the first paragraph continues but under changed/broken conditions, rather than showing a connection as Jackson’s ending did.

If you are worried about writing an ending, consider drafting a return to something earlier, but with a difference. The difference might show a change like Bradbury’s or a connection like Jackson’s.

What beauty does

[B]eauty impels us to pay a certain kind of attention. It startles you and prompts you to cast off the self-centered tendency to always be imposing your opinions on things. It prompts you to stop in your tracks, take a breath and open yourself up so that you can receive what it is offering, often with a kind of childlike awe and reverence. It trains you to see the world in a more patient, just and humble way. In “The Sovereignty of Good,” the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch writes that “virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

David Brooks

CHILDREN OF THE WITCH in a paragraph

Children of the Witch is a 71,000-word fantasy that imagines an American West where misfits and marshals in an arms race with Rasputin seek to weaponize demons. Peter Slips Noose just wants to escape his brother and the blimp-borne pirate crew of The New Delight, reconcile with his grandmother, and have some good friends. Instead, after a visit to the gallows, he finds the Three Sisters and their many, many husbands, Henry Johnson and his hammer, and pentagram wearing United Americas’ marshals. And the demons they are summoning. So many demons. To finally find a family, he must pick between his estranged grandmother and his hostile brother, each trying to exploit the conjuring.

FRIENDS OF THE CLAM in a paragraph

FRIENDS OF THE CLAM is a 71,000-word literary novel. Neurodivergent and obsessive, mid-twenty-year-old Curtis Love has a tricky life. A perfect honeymoon leads to a less than perfect marriage, a demanding boss, and a mysterious job. And now, his marriage is over. Determined to change himself and find an ideal social life somewhere between loneliness and social anxiety, he faces an employer who will only meet in video games, drunk runners, and angry churchgoers. Curtis sees his chance to balance between too many friends and too few evaporate. Then he meets June and Donnabella. Changing himself becomes his only option as he tries to find and fit into a family. 

Twelve Reasons You Should Keep Writing

by Sarah Ruhl and from the Jan/Feb 2023 Poets & Writers.

Sometime I forget why I should keep writing. I hope you make a list of your own. Here is mine.

Write for God. The cave. The envelope.

Write for your mother. Your father. Your friend who is sick.

Write for the future. Write for the past. Write for the present, but sideways.

Write for the child who saw cruelty, and for those dispossessed of language.

Write for your daughter. Write for your son. If they don’t exist, write for the dream of them.

Write for your uncle to weep, for your aunt to laugh. For your babysitter to cover her face with recognition.

Write for the church you walked past with a sign that read: THEATER AT SACRAMENT. And you misread it as: THEATER AS SACRAMENT.

Write for the accountants whose eyes are too tired at night for numbers. For the farmers who grow your corn.

Write for your teachers. Write for every single hour they left off writing their own sentences so that they could read yours.

Write to thank the books you love.

Write for yourself.

Write for God. The cave. And the envelope.

Reading drafts aloud

The last few months I’ve been revising by reading aloud and line-editing as I go. This is surprisingly satisfying, especially when I can read in big blocks of time, like three or four hours. Before these sentence-level changes, I made bigger structural changes by dragging and dropping or cutting large pieces of text. Once I had chapter-level changes made, I started on the sentences.

Once I’m done with the sentences, I’ll write a synopsis. Then I’ll write an elevator pitch.

I like this approach, but I think that the next time I start something big, I’ll begin by drafting pitches, then the synopsis, then a manuscript. I’ll do structural changes and proofreading in the same order as I am currently.

THE SECRET PHYSICS in a paragraph (two versions)

In The Secret Physics, a dying woman’s final whisper threatens to undo everything her son Jonathan knows about their relationship, his life, and reality itself. Years before, a stranger named Simon interrupted an innocent girl’s childhood, changing her life and leaving her hungry for revenge. Wendy vows that she will have the power that was meant to be hers, but when her life collides with Jonathan’s she learns Simon still seeks to do her and her family harm. When he returns to battle Wendy, the only person who can save her is Jonathan, the man whose trust she betrayed and life she destroyed.

In The Secret Physics, readers meet Jonathan Norton and Wendy Daily, a mild-mannered mortician and a beautiful linguist, married but not exactly in love. To save their grandson from an otherworldly poisoning, Jonathan races from world to world searching for Wendy and doubting his sanity. All of her family is at risk. Her parents disappeared decades before, perhaps exiled by a man who once saved her. Now Wendy must journey toward revenge and Jonathan must search for help through realities neither can understand. They must survive each other and the plot to destroy them to defend a loved one from a deadly, poisonous transformation.

Learning from Hanff Korelitz

And then they were eighteen, and not just leaving home but desperate to begin three permanently separate adult lives, which is exactly what would’ve happened if the Oppenheimer family hadn’t taken a turn for the strange and quite possibly unprecedented. But it did – we did – and that has made all the difference.

The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz

These sentences end a prologue about triplets that seem to dislike each other, or are at least indifferent toward each other, notwithstanding one parent’s efforts. The prologue hooked me, and I’m enjoying continuing to read the book.

What do these sentences teach about writing?

  • The longer sentence clearly announces a desire and immediately complicates it in a way that implies questions: Strange how? Unprecedented? Really? Readers are likely to read on with an interest in the answers to those questions.
  • A process–leaving home and establishing independent identities–is interrupted. How that process might continue or how it might become something new or what happens if the process is stopped . . . these are all potential sources of tension. The sentences have implications the rest of the book can explore.
  • The second sentence is much shorter, which provides a nice contrast. It also narrates from a self-effacing “we” which appears for the first time in what had seemed a third-person text. The “we” is also in tension with the dislike the triplets have stated for each other. In some sense, they, it seems, speak together. It’s also possible that one of them is comfortable claiming to speak for the others. Which of these two possibilities is the case? Readers read on to find out.
  • Finally, the last phrase is an allusion to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which emphasizes the theme of “a turn for the strange” verses remaining typical that seems to be developing.