The introduction to this series is here. But the idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for seven days. Post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at my name at gmail).
Day two: first lines! For years, I've loved and admired Bernard Malamud's short story, “The Magic Barrel.” A long time ago, back in Taiwan, I read in the introduction to his collected stories that “The Magic Barrel” was a “perfect” short story. I read the story and agreed.
I am always crushed when I show this story to students and they don't fall in love with it.
Here are the first three sentences:
Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University. Finkle, after six years of study, was to be ordained in June and had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married. Since he had no present prospects of marriage, after two tormented days of turning it over in his mind, he called in Pinye Salzman, a marriage broker whose two-line advertisement he had read in the Forward.
So much information is presented in this short opening paragraph. In the first sentence, we meet the protagonist, Leo Finkle, and we learn where and how he lives. In the second sentence, we are introduced to the problem that will animate the story: he needs to get married to further his career. We might find such a cold-hearted attitude to towards marriage unsettling, and we perhaps guess that Finkle finds it unsettling, too, because in the third sentence we are told he is “tormented” about his decision.
In other words, we have a perfect set up for a compelling story: a protagonist has to achieve a goal, but there is something inside him questioning whether his goal is the right one. And at the end of the first paragraph, we are introduced to the character who will force Finkle's conflicts out into the open.
Exercise two: create a similarly fast-paced opening. Write a three-sentence opening to a short story or novel (about a very different protagonist and problem) that contains the same kind of information, in the same sequence.
Then, if you like, keep writing.
A rather poor example from me:
A few years ago, Eric Loft lived in a one-bedroom apartment so stylish and well-equipped it was envied even by people who didn't know him. However, after eight continuous years maintaining servers for Yahoo, Eric had become both a little bored and a little lonely, and so when his aunt Grace suggested that he sell the apartment, and use the proceeds to buy back the North Carolina farm that their family had once owned, Eric did not reject the suggestion out of hand. After two tormented days of doubt, he decided that it couldn't hurt to take a look, and so he drove down from Philadelphia to his aunt's house, where she lived with her third husband, a gigantic ex-convict, someone who in his youth had killed two men, or at the very least had hurt them a great deal.
I like to do this sort of exercise at least twice in a row. The second attempt feels smoother than the first. Three times usually exhausts me, which I take as a good sign–that my writing muscles have been worked hard.
Post what you create in the comments below!
(This is day two of seven exercises. The first day's exercise is here.)