Wayword Scribblers, 1
by Eland Robert Mann
After living two years in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, I’d met several American expat acquaintances interested in writing, and we decided to get together at a local cafe every two weeks or so to share our own work and do little creative writing assignments together. Of the seven of us, several including myself wrote for a living, two others had English degrees, and we all were looking for an outlet to expand our writing beyond our less-creative daily duties and drudgeries. We dubbed our group the “Wayword Scribblers.”
Terry, who’d been in Mongolia the longest, and who’d had the initial idea to bring the group together, chose the group’s first assignment, which was to select our favorite opening sentences of works, and then use the inspiration from those to compose the first sentence to a new short story of our own.
I was excited about the opportunity to explore new facets of my writing. This was the summer of 2015, and I hadn’t written a short story since 2013. For the better part of two years I’d been slogging away as a magazine editor and journalist, working on my novel during any creative writing free time I’d have. I had notes, outlines and hurriedly scratched down ideas for new stories, but never the incentive or social pressure to craft a story to a semi-final product worth sharing with others. After years with my head buried underground, slowly pickaxing deep tunnels with my novel and mining semi-precious gems from bedrock with my editing, I was looking forward to surfacing for some fresh air and a new perspective.
The Wayword Scribblers assignments gave me a chance to try my hand at something new, to learn from others’ stabs at our shared assignments, and to give and receive critical feedback.
As for our first assignment, a few years earlier when editing and rewriting my first novel, I began to pay close attention to stories’ opening lines and passages. When writing my current novel, a detective mystery, I read most of Raymond Chandler’s novels and short stories, including “Red Wind”, which has the great opening paragraph:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
The opening lines literally put you smack in the middle of the evening’s menacing meteorology and localized geography. The image of knife-wielding “meek little wives” is unforgettable. Ending with an odd comment about a “full glass of beer” further adds to the reader’s disorientation.
For my own opening sentence, I was working at the time on a short story that would spin the rote “disillusioned expat” narrative in a new direction. I needed an opening sentence that was catchy, classical, and likewise as disorienting the Chandler example. Thus, I composed:
Romance needs heat, and for months I had trouble finding either in Mongolia.
The others in the group suggested I could add a word or two of detail about Mongolia and the cold, and now looking at it again I agree. Although “Mongolia” itself is quite a jarring noun, and it might be better to resist the temptation to tack any adjectives or modifying clauses onto the sentence.
Perhaps I’m best served by following Chandler’s example, and using a full paragraph of thrust to supplement the opening line’s punch.