Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fudging the way

by Zachary Steele


"My biggest problem is my brother, Farley Drexel Hatcher. He's two-and-a-half years old. Everybody calls him Fudge."

That was all it took.  Twenty words.  Three sentences.  And from that point on, I knew I wanted to have books in my life, and that someday I would write books that made people feel the way I felt at that moment.  It wasn't so much that Judy Blume had launched into the introduction of a character I would fall in love with, nor was it that I knew, right then and there, that no book would ever be as thoroughly awesome as Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.  Rather, it was that it took less than five seconds to accomplish it.  It was that my life's path could be so irrevocably altered in the span of a breath.  I might have only been seven, but I knew that was a power I wanted to have.  To have and to master.  Jedi style.

This was my face when I read the line, as it happened.

I began to pour through books, looking for more examples of this power to influence, this directional wind vane of literary might.  I wanted to know if this was a gift that was solitary, handed but to the great mastery of Judy Blume, or if there was a community pool of creation that all authors could simply dip into when they were ready.  When they reached that point in the book, wherever it might have been, where they could lean back in the chair, crack their knuckles, say, "This is about as good a spot as there can be!" and dip into that basin of beautiful phrasing, and monumental simplicity.

Turns out that doesn't exist, just in case you were wondering.  I looked.  Ponce de Leon had nothing on that search.

Which meant, quite simply, that it was a matter of skill, rather than fortune.  That was good.  After all, I could learn skill.  It's much harder to learn fortune.  Most often, you're kind of left standing out in the open, your arms wide, waiting for something pleasant to hit you.  Which is a funny thought, because I've never been hit by anything pleasantly.  It usually hurts.  Quite a lot.  So, I snapped out a pencil, grabbed a notepad, threw away the broken bits of the pencil that didn't care for the "fortunate" hit it took while waiting to be grabbed, gently picked up another pencil, and began writing.  I wrote a story about a young boy, walking his way to a Little League baseball game.  He was nervous, distracted, lost in thought about how the game would play out, and what his ultimate hand in it would be.  He hoped his team won.  It was the championship, after all.  As luck would have it, though, he was so engrossed in thought, that he stepped in a hole, and twisted his ankle.  It was tragic.  It was catastrophic.  It likely meant he would have to sit the game out, if he could even make it to the field.  Somehow, our young hero found the strength to hobble his way, and then the courage to take the field late in the game, when his team needed a hero.  He got the hit that won the game.  All was well.  My pencil, and I, were very happy with what we had created.  I was a writer.

Of course, it didn't have a Fudg-errific line, or series of lines, but it was mine.  It was breathtaking.  It was, well, it was horrible mostly, but it was the beginning of a great career, I was sure of it.

I discovered, some time later, that not only can this power be utilized in the story, but it can also kick you in the seat of the pants as soon as you open the book.  Kate DiCamillio demonstrated this, as well as any writer can, in her book, Because of Winn Dixie.  Behold:
"My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer, my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes, and I came back with a dog."
It was this opening that educated me fully on the power, and importance, of an opening sentence.  In the beginning, just wasn't going to cut it anymore.  Hence, when the day finally arrived that some crazy person boldly decided to pay actual money to put my work into print, they did so even after I threw everything I had into my first sentence, and managed, in that moment, to completely miss the point.  Instead I re-created the opening line of a rather old joke.
"When the Anti-Christ and Satan entered the bar, nobody took notice."
That was it.  There it was.  My Fudgey Winn Dixie moment.  It wasn't horrible.  But it wasn't Judy Blume.  It wasn't anywhere in the pool of really cool things that authors write when their brains are on fire.  It was...good, but not necessarily great.  So, I kept at it.  I keep at it still, I should say.  And I continue to tell myself that I can do this.  I can write that memorable, life-altering line.  I can change lives with twenty words, and five seconds.

Or I could try stand-up.

You should always keep your options open.  Just don't stand out in the middle of everything and wait for them to hit you.  That hurts.



Zachary Steele is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, and the forthcoming Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction, and has been featured on NPR and in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publisher's Weekly, and Shelf Awareness. He can be found boring the world with his thoughts on his blog, The Further Promotion of ME, as well as the bookstore-life blog, There Are No Words.

7 comments:

Nicole Seitz said...

Great post!

Peggy Webb said...

Zachery, I absolutely love the way you write. Actually, you do write as if your brain is on fire, and I mean that as a compliment!

Anna Michaels said...

I love the way an opening sequence can simply take your breath away. "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming."

Anna Michaels said...

Whoops. I meant to credit Chris Cleave, LITTLE BEE, for that opener.

Zach Steele said...

Thanks Peggy! If my brain really is on fire, then that might explain quite a lot. :o)

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nreddick said...

Zachery,
I did enjoy your post and those beginnings are what really do draw us in. I'll check your blogs today.
Niles