Saturday, November 07, 2009

Possible opening for a novel

I cheekily put the first of these paragraphs up on my Good Beginnings post at the start of this week, to see if anyone would play the "Can you guess what it is yet?" game.... but no-one noticed.
So, I thought I'd trot it out more prominently here, and see if it garners any reaction.
There's a curious story behind this, how it came to be written.  When I was working in Toronto a decade or so ago, The Globe & Mail ran a short story competition.  I produced this tale of a sniper, which I called Watching, with a view to entering, but..... well, I didn't.  I can't now recall if it was a crisis of confidence, or if I just missed the submission deadline.  I rather think it was a problem of length and/or content.  I think the word limit might have been something like 5,000 words, and I'd gone considerably over that, and didn't want to prune it back too much.  Also, I think the subject matter was supposed to be "reflective of Canadian life" or somesuch, and this story was pretty obviously set during the civil war in Yugoslavia (although I wanted to avoid specifically identifying the locale, to give it more the mood of a timeless fable); having the central characters emigrate to Canada after the war was a bit of an unsatisfactory ploy to try to meet this requirement.
Anyway, I rather liked it.  It was, I thought, one of the best things I'd written.  It was - is - in fact about the only substantial piece of fiction I've ever written (at least, since my school days).  It was also the first thing I'd written on a computer.  Ah, computers - bane of the modern world!  I tried to copy all of my personal files on to floppy disks when I left the job, but most of them got corrupted.  This story was a victim of the cyber-gremlins.  And I lost my one-and-only hard copy of it as well.  Vanished, as though it had never been.
However, I still retain a pretty vivid memory of it, and the other week I thought I'd try to recreate the opening of it. 
I have been wondering if the idea is strong enough to expand into a novel.  My initial interest was in examining this perspective of someone who holds a god-like power of life and death over people - what does a sniper think about, crouched in his nest for hours at a time, waiting for the right moment to shoot, just watching people?  I was also fascinated with the possibility that in a civil conflict like this there might not always be rigid demarcations between the feuding communities, that people from either side might be able to mingle with their "enemy" and for much of the time conduct relations with them in a more or less normal way.  So, the narrative idea developed of an odd love story where the sniper becomes infatuated with a young girl he sees through his sights by day; and at night he starts crossing over into her community to try to meet her and develop a relationship with her.  Eventually he is successful in this; but as they become lovers, he is increasingly tormented by guilt about the people - her people - that he has killed, and by the fact that he must try to keep his role in the war a secret from her.

Already he had a reputation.  Even those unschooled in the finer points of his art would have realised that he was something out of the ordinary.  The people here, schooled by painful experience, were all now connoisseurs.  And they knew he was the best of the best.  There was something else, though, beyond his technical skills.  He excited a superstitious awe.  You needed exceptional eyesight to do what he did; but they were starting to say he had a 'second sight' as well, that he could see inside people's bodies, perhaps even look into their souls – and that was how he made his choices.

In less than a week he had a reputation, and a nickname.  They were calling him The Angel.  Not an 'Angel of Death'.  That would have been too obvious; all snipers were that.  No, it was short for Angel of Mercy.  There might have been some irony in the naming, but there was also a gratitude.  People sensed something good in him, and they clung to it.  It wasn't the people he spared.  They could never know how many of them he'd watched through his telescopic sight, or what deliberations he'd gone through when he refrained from pulling the trigger.  It was the ones he'd killed, the pattern people thought they saw in this: only the old and the sick, as if he were trying to take as little life as possible.

Most of his early victims, in fact, had not been especially old; yet none of them had had much longer to live.  This was how the belief grew that he had some uncanny insight.  People were soon convinced that he could see better than an X-ray, better than a doctor who would live and who would die – and he was just hurrying the process along, accelerating their end by a few years at most, sometimes only by a few months or a few weeks.  It could be seen as a kindness: he was sparing them their final suffering.  His victims were not all obviously frail, but, people said, he could always tell; he looked at the men and women in his sights and he knew which tumours were operable and which had run out of control; he knew which coughs were just a passing winter cold or a heavy smoking habit and which were signs of chronic emphysema or TB.  He knew, they said.  He always knew.



Tony said...

Do go ahead and write it; clearly it will be worth reading. How I envy you!

I didn't enter your competition because I realised in my teens that I could be a competent hack, but being quite without imagination I could never, ever, tell a story. I have tried a few times but thinking of characters and things for them to say and do is just not within my rage. Sad, really; it's not nice to know that as a writer I am, in that respect, inferior to Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer and their despicable peers.

Tony said...

P.S. I meant "range", of course.

Froog said...

Yes, I know what you mean, Tony - but 'rage' is such a marvellous typo.

I think you have more than enough talent, if only you had the hunger. Rather the same with me, I fear. I have - at times - a quite prodigious facility for producing story ideas, but I just don't have the stamina to work them up into an 80,000-100,000 word novel.

The thing that distinguishes the Archers, Browns, Grishams and Clancys of this world, I think, is that they are so wonderfully uninhibited by self-doubt or self-criticism. They are absolutely awful writers, but they just don't care, and write anyway. That's the knack we need to learn - without being content to write crowd-pleasing drivel.

This is a very difficult balance to strike.

JES said...

I agree: I wish Tony hadn't taken rage back.

The hunger is a weird thing. [But I loved the movie, ha.] They say politicians must be driven by a "fire in the belly" in order to succeed, and that sounds an awful lot like "hunger" (and vice-versa) to me. But I can't say I've ever had anything burning in my gut, really.

I do know I'm stubborn. And egotistic enough to think that if I can write one sentence which I, at least, really like, then I should be able to string together enough of them to make a really solid story. And that's the problem, see? Because "a really solid story" and "a pile of nice sentences" really don't equate.

That said, damn, I'd love to see you push on with Watching (or whatever you might decide to call it). Interesting how -- well, I'm not going to say because I don't want to put something in your head to distract you.

Outrageous, you know: anonymously commenting on your own blog. What really cheeses me off about it is that you did it before me.