I am now going back through old drafts I started this year but haven’t posted yet. This summer I started a First Sentence Second Sentence exercise – the idea was to generate a first sentence to pair with five different second sentences, and then to write a story from each. I drafted three of the five, only typing two of the three. The one lost to my notebook(s) I want to find again because I liked the alternative space I created, a world whose best currency is a good secret.
Here are the first and second sentences from the exercise:
- Her own family secret was not enough. Already there were too many novels or memoirs about illegitimate children. See below.
- Her own family secrets were not enough. Diane needed a better currency. Started in notebook(s).
- Her own family secret was not enough. Her grandparents insisted Diane could have learned that detail about the Ford truck from a newspaper and hollered her down from the porch that she was lying, and what did she want anyway? Modified first sentence after the story became something different.
- Her own family secrets were not enough. Diane made grave rubbings of the entire Czewalski corner of the cemetery and spent hours in the public library squinting at the tiny print of period newspapers until she found the story about an axe down a well.
- When her own family secrets were not enough, Diane stole mine. Now I gotta answer questions all day from people like you who email or call or won’t leave until I answer the door.
And now, the untitled (are we surprised?) twenty-seven of thirty-nine, at 989 words:
Her own family secret was not enough. Already there were too many novels or memoirs about illegitimate children. And it wasn’t like Diane’s great-grandmother had an affair with a mobster or movie star. Evelyn loved a migrant worker. It was the Dust Bowl. Diane opened her laptop and began typing what she could remember, that the boy was raised as Evelyn’s younger brother but the secret slipped on the eve of her wedding. And even then, there was no scandal. She married and her husband proposed her son join them in their new life and that was it. They moved to a farming town on the Wisconsin Illinois border. Diane closed her laptop. That was not a novel. She pecked a message to her friends, to meet for dinner and bring a family secret.
I need new material, she said, when drinks were served. Drew chewed his thumbnail. Really, Diane said, I can’t do another Abigail book. Please. Abigail Raider was a series Diane started during her junior year of college. It was going to be a trilogy. Then she tacked on a fourth book because the copies kept selling and she wanted to go to Hawaii. But the thought of a fifth book brought on mild panic. She didn’t want to be just that kind of author, writing a character to death, writing in a genre she’d only tried on as a lark. But now she knew young adult fantasy and girls wrote gobs of fanfiction and school librarians asked her to speak and Diane hid in fear: she’d accidentally gotten good at peridwarves, sniggledragons, swampy meadows, fairy genealogy, and exasperated teenage sexual tension. Book four gave her readers the kiss they’d all been waiting for. Please, Diane said again.
Angie took a sip of her wine. You asked for family secrets, she said, I’ve got one. My father robbed a bank when he was seventeen. He was high. He was also a judge’s kid, got community service. Expunged record.
Diane took a small notebook from her bag. Can you say that again?
No. And don’t tell anyone. Angie took another sip of wine.
The point is I need a story. I could take that and make a novel. It’s exactly what I’m looking for!
I get a split, Angie said.
In writing. Angie waited a moment before smiling. Kidding. Just, really no one can know that’s my dad.
Of course. Diane scribbled what she could remember. Drew raised his hand. I’ve got something, he said, My uncle hanged himself. Diane waited. That’s it? she asked. That’s enough to start a story, Drew said. Diane made a note. Quinn said, Drew’s right. You need a nudge. You don’t need an outline. You’re the writer, you do the work. Quinn glanced at Drew and he winked.
Wait, Diane said, What’s that mean, you’re the writer? You write.
Nothing, Quinn said, Just the figure it out part. That’s the point.
It’s the reward of being a writer, you figuring it all out, Angie said.
I mean, what’s wrong with what you’ve got going on? Angie asked.
It’s not what I want to write, Diane said.
But it pays.
You got a tan. Drew raised his glass and they drank.
Just don’t whinge, Quinn said, about how successful your dystopian romance weird underworld books are.
But they aren’t what I want to write anymore.
Then don’t. Quinn opened the menu. I’m starving.
They ordered. Diane listened to her friends talk about their work. As an office temp, an elementary school teacher, and an IT worker. In university she and Quinn studied English together and both submitted manuscripts to a contest the year Abigail got picked up for publication. What sells, she remembered asking Quinn. Harry Potter. Twilight. True crime. Romance. Yes, romance. Fantasy. And when Diane said she’d write that, Quinn double-dog-dared her and Abigail Raider took a shadow shape. Now Diane wondered if she’d betrayed the genre by beginning her work with skepticism and, worse, condescension, and if her readers would hate her for abandoning Abigail and Teo at the start of their love story and in the middle of Tallyway’s attack on the peridwarves. But when she and Quinn imagined being writers they had brains full of Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, Joyce, dead writers and alive, serious writers who won awards and gave commencement speeches. Diane ate her burger without tasting the mustard and onion. Quinn was still writing. She sent pieces to obscure online magazines. All of her work was difficult to read but good. Diane took a drink of water and a waitress materialized to refill the sip. Drew was laughing at something Angie said and Quinn picked fries off Drew’s plate and Diane thought she could get up from the table, walk out the door and not be missed.
Hey, Quinn said. She snapped her fingers across the table. Hey!
Diane shook her head, blinked.
Something in your drink? You look gone.
I’m fine, Diane said. She looked at Angie who liked Abigail, who dressed as Abigail for Halloween once. I think, Diane said, I think I’ll do a fifth book. Tie up the loose ends.
Angie clapped. Drew raised his glass. Quinn nodded like she’d been expecting Diane’s conclusion. You did it right, Quinn said, Abigail sells. Diane shrugged. She said, After the fifth book, I want to try something else. But first Diane wanted to go to Abigail with a kind heart. First she wanted to visit a few schools, read the fan fiction. First she wanted to be sure she lived in the genre she wanted to move away from. Diane let her shoulders relax. She smiled. Quinn returned her smile. You can do this, Quinn said, and to Angie, I like that story about your dad. I might steal it. Angie laughed. Then Drew asked Quinn about her family secret and the night out was like any other.