Category: Fiction

The First Sentence

Never open with the weather, he thought with raindrops beating against the glass pane behind him. The cool, autumn air dashed in through the slightly opened window. He wanted the cold. It was his sadistic muse, chilling his extremities to the point of numbness. His fingers hovered steadily above the keys, hoping for the inspiration that would lead to their movement, to their warmth.

Writing wasn’t always this difficult. Clovis Galt was once a prolific writer….not to be confused with successful. As a younger man, he would save receipts from purchases. They would be folded up and stuffed into his shirt pocket. He valued them only for their blank backs. If there were useless coupons printed all along the other side, he’d toss them out. This habit ensured he had paper to write on with the pen he wore either in the same shirt pocket or atop his right ear. He needed all this paper for his ideas. Ideas came at any moment, and Clovis had to be prepared.

The screen of his tablet lit brightly, reminding Clovis of the darkness in which he’d been sitting. Surely I’ve got something here, he thought sliding his shivering finger across its surface. Tap. Tap. Tap. Swipe. Tap. Swipe. Swipe. Swipe. Swipe.

Nothing. Though he had stopped writing nearly two years ago, Clovis made it a point to continue noting his ideas. It was even the excuse he used for buying an expensive mobile device. His sanity told him it was just an over-sized phone without the phone. It was a waste of money, unless, he rationalized, he used it to easily jot down his great literary ideas. No more scribbling on receipts. Everything would be digitized, tagged and searchable. The time spent reviewing and organizing his handwritten blather surely would be cut in half. Instead, it seemed the number of new ideas he had were cut in half. Despite the increased efficiency, the sleek rectangle seemed to restrain his creativity.

Clovis tossed the gadget onto his bed. He rose from his seat in front of the computer, grabbing a red plastic cup. More water, he thought. That’s what I need. Hydration. He went into the kitchen and filled the half-empty cup from a pitcher of filtered water. He drank from it as he returned to his desk, but didn’t sit down. “Lisa threw her shoe at the second story window,” he said aloud. “Lisa threw her shoe at a second story window.” The or a?

Lisa was an idea from an old receipt. Several years ago, he had scribbled, “Lisa, heartbroken. Demands Needs closure. Confronts ex but learns she never knew him. Their love hasn’t happened.”

The first few weeks without writing seemed to be just a rut. Clovis knew he’d get out of it when he was ready, when he had the right story. Eventually, it was as though he had forgotten that he was a writer. He still considered himself to be one but had been in denial about the fact he hadn’t actually written anything in nearly a year. That was when his first realization came. It was time to write something. He had retrieved a couple of boxes from his storage facility on Spring Street. It was within walking distance of his apartment, so he set out on the journey to recover his forgotten ideas. Inside the boxes were many notebooks, relics of a time before technology, filled with poetry, prose and the occasional doodle. The notebooks were buried in ink-stained litter that was the result of Clovis’s past potency.

Enough time had gone by that he had forgotten much of it, and reading his old writing was like finding a lost novel of a favorite author. Clovis was struck with reassurance. His writing was good. It was entertaining and interesting. Of course, he did come across some trite composition here and there, but it was just unpolished, unfinished.

Inside those boxes was where he found Lisa. Several concepts he had started on intrigued him, but there was something special about this one. Reading over the note, he felt a strong desire to know what happens next. And that meant there was a story to be told. He had to tell it.

For whatever reason, right then and there wasn’t the time to begin. Clovis decided that he’d need to be well-rested and have plenty of time set aside to make serious progress on the project. So, his life went on, taking precedence over Lisa’s.

He decided that perhaps starting with a simple description would be easiest. “A slender woman of twenty-four walked quickly down the street, her heels”– It’s always a slender lady in heels walking down a street! He got up from the desk again and ran his fingers through his hair, partly out of frustration and partly for the warmth. After deciding against starting with the violent act of throwing a shoe at a window, Clovis had returned to the keyboard hoping for a new approach to come to him. Lisa is a quiet, calm character. Sure, she eventually erupts and throws the shoe she was wearing against the window of her assumed ex-lover, but the reader, and Lisa, would need to progress to that point. He needed to introduce her in a way that would ennoble her, and he wasn’t able to do that.

Standing around in the middle of his bedroom, Clovis thought about how he wanted to describe Lisa. She is a wonderful woman, really. The reader has no choice but to fall in love with her. She’s smart, kindhearted and beautiful in a cute and sophisticated kind of way. She’s not a “hottie”, a sex object. Her physical attractiveness transcends animalistic desire; it’s something in the realm of art, a true beauty that matches her very nature. He couldn’t think of a way to put it into words. Godlike.

When Clovis had been digging through his old ramblings, he noticed a pattern. Everything that went on to become a completed work was very much about him. There was the short story of the NYU dropout finding his own path to professional success, while finding fulfillment in his free time. There was the poem about losing a close friend at a young age. Even the obvious works of fiction, like the Old West gunslinger killing just to make a living or the unassuming accountant forced into defending his home from alien invasion, were definitely modeled after his own experiences and character. He began to wonder if he was ever truly creative or if everything was just an embellished retelling of his life, his hopes and his fears.

But Lisa isn’t him. He realized that immediately. She is a better person and far more interesting. Though he had put off writing her story for several months after rediscovering it, Clovis had used his newfangled note-taking machine to record a few revelations. He had an entire tag devoted to her, simply called, “Lisa”. Sometimes while lost in misanthropic thoughts on the subway, Lisa would guide him out from the barren landscape of cynicism. A hopeful curiosity surrounded the idea of her in his imagination. How does she know this man? Has she loved before? What does she dream about? Not every question could be answered, but a few good answers came to him at times. He would diligently tap them into his digital companion.

Prose was what he needed now, though. He picked the tablet back up from the bed where he had tossed it moments earlier. Words, not ideas, he thought as he pulled up the “Lisa” tag in his notepad program. There were trivial notes about Lisa, such as those stating that she had red hair and that she was born on January 22nd. The year was deliberately left out because, in Clovis’s mind, Lisa is timeless. She’s twenty-four years old now, and when someone reads her story five years from now, she’ll be twenty-four.

There was a note all about her romantic interest, Louis Avery. The first name was a reference to Clovis’s own, being a variant of his. However, it was important that it was just a way to add his signature to the story, a kind of calling card. Louis Avery was nothing like Clovis Galt. For starters, when Lisa comes to Louis raving about the love they had shared, a love only she seems to remember, Louis is unaffected emotionally by it. It’s only after spending more time with her does he begin to fall in love. Clovis would have fallen in love immediately at the thought of being loved by someone. Then, there was Louis Avery’s job: sales. It was something Clovis could never do. The dishonesty would prove impossible, or at least succeeding at it would. Clovis could tell a lie, just not well. He always preferred the truth, and pretending to think or feel something he didn’t was a skill he lacked. That might make Louis sound like a jerk, just another sleazy salesman. Well, that was Clovis’s plan. The reader is supposed to believe that there’s no way this incredible creature would have fallen in love with a seemingly superficial phony. Not knowing whether the love they had was real or just a fabrication in Lisa’s mind was a central component to the story. So, making the relationship seem impossible had to be an early stroke of the writer’s brush. As the reader gets deeper into the narrative they’ll learn the truth about Louis Avery. Instead of hating him for being a bamboozler who callously ignores the beloved protagonist, readers will find that he has other, important obligations. And they’ll lose any sympathy for the victims of his charisma and quick tongue, who are all self-important socialites voluntarily throwing away their undeserved money to grab useless status symbols.

Could I start with Louis? It didn’t make sense to him, but the night seemed to be wasting away without any progress being made. Clovis was getting desperate. He just needed one good line to kick things off. Then, it would be easy.

Clovis began to think that starting out with the sickly Mrs. Avery would offer a good scene. He worried that the revelation of Louis having a dying mother whose treatment he pays for wouldn’t be as strong if it happens upfront. Clovis wanted to ease the reader into understanding the situation Louis is in, offering it as an explanation, an answer to his initial aloofness. He doesn’t have time for silly romance. His mother is sick, and with one sibling in jail and the other working a minimum-wage job in between stints in rehab, a lot of responsibility falls on him. This revelation would allow forgiveness of his earlier behavior. No, Clovis thought. “Can’t start with Louis.”

Perhaps a distraction, he thought. After all, he hadn’t any momentum to lose just yet. Clovis checked his email and was happy to find that a new message was waiting.

It was spam. He quickly checked the box next to the message and clicked “Delete”. He then switched to some other tabs, browsing the web pages already opened on his computer. He refreshed a few to see if there were any updates. He also closed a couple. One was the definition of “incongruous”. He had known that the word meant dissonant, being incompatible or opposed. He was curious about the connotations, though. He needed to make sure he understood the exact definition. It was a word that had been considered in an early thought for the beginning of Lisa’s story. “The lovers’ memories of their shared passion were incongruous.” Ultimately, Clovis decided that sounded too calculating, like a simple boolean test answering with “false”.

He was getting hungry now. He’d already eaten supper hours ago. Sleep would need to come soon. If he ate anything more, he’d be awake all night. Clovis always found it difficult to sleep after a meal. It was as though digestion needed his full, waking attention. His stomach wasn’t growling. That was a good sign. It meant he still had time to call it a night before having to give in and commit to another meal. He drank water, hoping that would help hold off starvation. He just needed enough time to figure out how to start this story. The beginning was all he needed now. The rest would fall into place later.

Getting the explanation right would be the most important part. Clues would need to be laid carefully throughout the story, so that when he finally comes out and says why only Lisa remembers the romance, it all immediately comes together. To ready some of that foundation with the first words would be a genius move. He thought hard about how to make that happen.

The story was too surreal for him. He enjoyed reading fantasy, but never wrote any himself. Clovis had written several works of fiction, but they were always grounded firmly in reality. The farthest he’d ever gotten from reality had been a couple of science fiction novels he had completed while attending college. They were his only real accomplishments from that time in his life, even though they were never published. Science fiction, while perhaps far-fetched, was not necessarily pure fantasy. Magic was made possible through technology, not supernatural forces. That minor distinction was enough to make Clovis comfortable writing the genre.

The supernatural element was what made Lisa’s story so difficult for Clovis. He had told himself that it would be a good step for him. He needed to learn to write within a looser reality. It would release his creativity, free it from the confines of Newtonian mechanics. He reviewed the notes again, this time focusing on the ones that explained the magic behind the plot.

More details were in the backstory than he’d remembered. One note, titled “Magic Stuff”, had eight paragraphs of information. He winced at the realization almost none of this would actually appear in the book. It was all background notes, designed to give him a better understanding of the story. The readers were never meant to know these details. In truth, they served more to settle his own uneasiness over the aspects of the story that were incongruous to the natural order of his world. That was the reason he created the gods. He named them Era and Schick. Like the strong and weak nuclear forces, they were fundamental to the Universe’s design. Through these two immortal lovers Clovis found the motivation for his heroine’s predicament.

In the kitchen, Clovis searched his cabinets for food. He was thinking that he should have just gone to bed, but a feeling of anticipation kept him awake. An important thought was slowly developing inside him. Rather than calling it quits, he had decided to hunt down a small snack. He looked over several unappetizing non-perishables that he didn’t even remember buying.

During his search, he went over the argument between his two gods. It happened every few billion years, he imagined. Though they clearly loved each other, disagreements would be unavoidable. This one, however, was notably bad. Era began to wonder eons ago whether her companion would love her had he others to choose from. It was a doubt she had ignored, nearly forever. Clovis decided on vienna sausages.

He didn’t know why he had them. They were not a food he particularly enjoyed. However, the small size and easy-open can made them an appealing answer to his pressing hunger.

The backstory remained his focus as the toothpick pressed into the salty meat blend. It gave Clovis the leverage to lift the sausage out of the can. Not consulting his notes, he remembered how the confrontation resulted in emotional turmoil. That turmoil was embodied in the giant electrical storm that engulfed the Universe. Schick tried to console Era by assuring her that their love was genuine. That wasn’t the only problem, though. It was merely the catalyst that unleashed an eternity of questions and grievances. After the emotions calmed, a decision was reached. Despite the bickering over trivial matters, the initial point was valid. Schick and Era both needed to know. Would they love each other if they had other options? A new solar system was born that night, and the gods vanished.

With his stomach satisfied, Clovis felt doubly inclined to create the first words of his epic tale. It was unfortunate, he thought, that Era and Schick would be left out of it. Only Clovis would know that they were actually the main characters. Though Lisa has a rush of memories when she’s hit by a bolt of lightning, it doesn’t bring complete awareness. In fact, the only awareness it gives her is the awareness of truly being in love. So, when she and Louis Avery kiss for the first time, neither they nor the readers would realize their identities. Even if another storm were to arouse their complete memories, Clovis knew the couple would choose to stay and live with the true love that can’t be found in Eternity.

And then he had it!

Clovis set his fingers on the keys. He repeated it in his head a few times, checking to see that the pacing was correct. It seemed right to him, better than right. The cold air blew over his shoulders and onto his hands, but Clovis didn’t notice. His thoughts were focused. The entire story was playing out in his mind, all deriving from the initial words. Lisa’s life was pulling the emotion from within him, and it felt incredible. Smiling and confident, Clovis Galt typed out the perfect first sentence.

By on Thursday, December 1st, 2011 at 1:02 pm | + = this post

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  • http://twitter.com/just_so_stories Sara

    needs a sequel tbh

    • http://blog.clayburngriffin.com/ Clayburn Griffin

      Your face needs a sequel!

  • Fannie Price

    I really like this one, Clayburn! I enjoyed the hints of mythology and feeling like we get to peak inside of a writer’s mind. And the vienna sausages. Nice touch.