Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One way to write a good story: Tim Dicks' "The Fireman"

So one of the questions that has come up here in recent discussions is how I can evaluate a story as quickly as I claim (it often takes me about a paragraph to know that I'm not going to take something, and most of the time when I am going to take something I have a strong sense that this is the case by page 3). And then there is the more fundamental question, in many ways the one underlying everything we talk about and do here: how do you know when you're reading good or even great fiction?

As I've argued here before, my goal is to identify great fiction, but I think that sort of curation happens on a longer schedule than our biannual publication schedule. It takes a long time to definitely know what's great. What I do instead, when curating for a magazine, is to make strong guesses about what I will later believe is great, beginning with judging whether or not something I'm looking at is, by my standards, good. Of course it's not enough to be good. A lot of things are good. A story also has to fit my idiosyncratic needs as a reader if I'm going to spend real time with it, and especially if I'm going to publish it.  (Note: I'm going to talk about "fiction" here because we publish more fiction than poetry and for the sake of convenience, but most of the things I'm going to say here will be true of how I read poetry as well.)

Today we're going to look at a story by Tim Dicks that we published in issue 0001. The story is called "The Fireman," and you can click here to download the full PDF. (You might want to just do that and forget about this post for a while.) The idea is that we're going to look at how one specific story successfully created interest, maintained that interest, and ultimately created a satisfying reading experience. I'm not trying to create an authoritative account here, just to make some interesting arguments about how fiction succeeds.

Now, to contradict myself a little at the outset, I said above that I look for things that suit my idiosyncratic needs as a reader. But one of my idiosyncratic needs is that I almost exclusively like things that make me read them the way they want to be read -- things that teach me as I go. There's an extent to which any fiction does that, but some stories foreground it more effectively. I think one of the key things about my favorite writers is they tend to begin from a place of radical skepticism about what a story is, should be, or can be. They don't assume that the world they're writing about corresponds to our real world, and they especially don't assume that if they're writing ostensibly realist fiction. So even if they are in fact writing about recognizable human beings in a world that looks like my world, the best writers will still take care to quickly establish what particular vision of the world they're working with, and the terms through which this story will portray that world.

Which is maybe a lot of warmup for the basic idea that "The Fireman" opens by declaring its strategy in short order. Here is the first paragraph:
Well and then the whole thing stunk to highest heaven anyway. But then that was all the more reason to keep it tucked away. But then that was also all the more reason to start tossing it around the Owl.
The first sentence -- in fact, the first two words -- establishes the off-balance syntax of the voice that controls the story. It's interesting to note that the word "I" does not appear in this paragraph, but you can feel it: you know from the start that this is a story about voice, and about the troubled mind that generates the voice. The transitions from one sentence to the next ("But then," "But then") tell us this is a restless person, but not an especially educated or probably bright person. And already it sounds guilty ("all the more reason to keep it tucked away"). And already we know that this person has poor judgment (if it ought to stay secret, you probably shouldn't toss it around at the bar). So already "the whole thing [stinks] to high heaven," already we know that there will be trouble in the story, that the character will bring the trouble on himself.

In three sentences that ostensibly divulge nothing, Tim has already given you essentially his entire plan of action for the story. I don't require that much information from the first paragraph, but a) it sure as hell doesn't hurt and b) I certainly do require commitments of some kind. In my workshop days I liked to call it "making promises." Most writers are afraid to make promises because they aren't sure they can keep them. The more quickly you make your aesthetic and structural commitments -- the more quickly you establish your voice and the tone of your world -- the better.

This isn't especially uncommon advice, but I do think most writers fail to think about how many commitments are really available to them. A lot of writers try to make promises by beginning a story with, "Before the fire came," or "Before I lost my leg," or something. These aren't necessarily awful but they rarely work out: people take forever getting around to the thing they promised, or they never do, and the rest of the story feels radically different. Instead, people promise you a fire and then they give you a story of mild domestic disturbance (presumably there is in fact a fire at the end: I never get far enough to find out).

Here's the second paragraph:
“They want me to gum up the pipes,” I said. I had a fistful of beer and a fistful of peanuts and it was getting where I forgot which was which without looking. I’m not a drinking man and tonight I’d really given the bartender his exercise. He was a sort of friend, a man I’d known from the sausage floor before he’d left to buy the Owl, and a no-bullshitter, the kind of guy who wasn’t afraid to toss out a customer for knocking over too many bottles or trying to swing a pool stick.
It's good, right? The rate of information is interesting here. We're learning less about the way the story will be told (the biggest revelation here is a confirmation that the narrator will be an "I," although it's also worth noting that we learn here that Tim will handle dialog in the usual way, which is good to know, and we have confirmation that the voice will continue as it began) but we're also learning a lot more about the characters and their world. The Owl is in fact a bar, as we suspected, and we've got a second character (the bartender). We also know what stunk to high heaven: this is a story about sabotage (the pipes).

Over the next couple of pages, we learn more about the plan for sabotage (it's an insurance scam to benefit a church, relatively benign or even altruistic but also potentially very serious). We also quickly gather evidence that our protagonist-narrator was probably poorly chosen for the job. Then he goes home from the bar.
So of course, yeah, I’d do the job. But I didn’t need to go jawing to Cranny about it. I got myself home and turned on a little TV and took some beers from the back of the fridge and tried not to think about what I’d done but when I finally laid myself down in bed I might as well have been laying myself down on the bar of the Owl. could taste that beer still on my tongue and I could see the mirror behind the liquor bottles and my own face in it. I could hear Cranny talking to me but now everything he said was heavy like he was thinking about how he’d tell this to the police. Then I got to thinking about the insurance company and if they offered rewards for this kind of information and it seemed they’d be fools not to.
One of the chief pleasures available to a voice-driven story is the pleasure of watching someone think. And one of the reasons voice-driven stories are so often written from the perspectives of dull or strange minds is that they often work more slowly, giving us the time to observe the fits and starts of the narrator's thoughts. Tim takes full advantage of that here as the narrator slowly works his way around to the fact that what he's just done was pretty stupid. He gets scared. (So do we.) (We also get excited, because what readers love most is watching people get themselves into big trouble.) And what he does next gives us the final piece of the puzzle: the narrator, who seems like a sweet and weirdly noble man, is maybe a little bit dangerous.
I decided to myself that I’d sleep off this beer and then in the morning first light I’d get over to the Owl and wait for Cranny. But then even that wouldn’t easy me down and anyway it was a hot night and I couldn’t take it anymore, I got my jeans back on and got out to my truck and got back to town and then to Cranny’s house. The neighborhood was real quiet and it was about to three in the morning and I had no reason not to just kind of relax and bed down there in my truck but I kept remembering how Cranny had talked to me and how I’d talked at the bar and I drove down to the KG and bought a cup of stale coffee from a kid who looked surprised to see anyone and looked real guarded, like I might be setting up to ask for the cash register. 
Anyway I went back to Cranny’s and sat there drinking my coffee and listening to the radio real quiet and then I felt the night coming up on me. You might wonder how I know and I know because I kept waking up and finding my head against the window. And then finally I woke up and the sun was plenty up and Cranny was there knocking on my windshield, making for me to crank down my window.
He drives out to town, drunk, to (gently) menace his friend and confidant. It's not that he plans to do anything so bad. But when he thinks the kid at the register thinks he might be planning to "ask for the cash register" (a great phrase), we see that he's aware, on some level, of how bad this thing could go.

I don't want to spoil any more of the story, so we'll just say that it does indeed go bad. And not in a maximalist way, not in any sort of shocking genre hop, nothing excessive -- but in a way that feels entirely native to everything we know about the character from these paragraphs, and yet still strikes us as more strange, more sweet, more sad, more frightening, than anything we could have imagined. In short, Tim keeps his promises. But the precise way he keeps them is surprising, exciting, fun, and wonderfully awful. But the voice of the narrator has such conviction, the story is so confident in what it is and its logic, that I knew I was probably going to accept it by the time Cranny was knocking on the windshield, or maybe before. The story had taught me what to expect, and I trusted it to deliver.

And this is the key, really. "The Fireman" is a pretty traditional story. It's a particular type of realism, a slanted realism, but similar to many other slanted realist stories written by a wide variety of authors. The voice is specific but its terms are not exceedingly unusual. You can imagine reading it in a number of good mainstream magazines. But it knows better than to count on readers to believe in it: it earns our belief, and our esteem, by beginning from the assumption that a story can do anything, and then declaring, in that wonderful void hidden at the beginning of every story, the world it will create and the terms by which it will succeed or fail.

Failure is an important element too, and it's one I'll probably talk about next time. I'm not sure I've got the time and energy to do this for every piece we published (and I apologize to anyone whose story or poem doesn't get a post like this) but I'm going to try to see what I can learn from looking at the magazine, and what I can share of that learning.

1 comment:

  1. i read submissions (haphazardly) for a journal (birkensnake)--you're right, it doesn't take long (time/sentences) to decide if a piece is going to work or not. sometimes the writing is very competent but just wrong for the journal. i don't think it is really enough for something to be 'good' or 'great'; there has to be more to a successful submission than the adequacy of the writing. i find this whole discussion on here very perplexing; what has age got to do with it? the people who write and the people who edit and who read are composed of a variety experiences, some which have to do with time, which can be spent acquiring things like page counts or playtime with puppies or watching reality tv. it is difficult to say how far advanced one is vs. another with any clarity. journals, every issue, are put together by people who make decisions about how they want that issue to look & feel; the result is a collaboration between the people who work to make the thing come into being.

    anyhow, i need to get off the internet.