The Third Bear: Story Beginnings

(Two more good review of the collection, at the Sacramento Book Review and at Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream.)

It looks like this cold isn’t going to allow me any rest anyway, and I’ve been dipping into my just-published story collection The Third Bear the last few hours, so I might as well talk a little bit about story beginnings, using the book as an example.

Please note that I’m not claiming anything special about my beginnings–readers decide what’s successful or not–but am just telling you about the decision-making process. The first draft may be driven by passion and the subconscious, but it’s also driven by a writer’s prior experience–part of what seems to get on the page by accident is due to years of practice and trial-and-error. Then, in revising the material, you accentuate certain effects, de-emphasize others, and perhaps even start all over again or impose radical revisions. My comments below include elements of “decision-making” throughout this layered process.

“The Third Bear”: It made its home in the deep forest near the village of Grommin, and all anyone ever saw of it, before the end, would be hard eyes and the dark barrel of its muzzle. The smell of piss and blood and shit, and bubbles of saliva and half-eaten food. The villagers called it the Third Bear because they had killed two bears already that year. But, near the end, no one really thought of it as a bear, even though the name had stuck, changed by repetition and fear and slurring through blood-filled mouths to Theeber. Sometimes it even sounded like “seether” or “seabird.”

—The first thing readers may notice is that the point of view/voice isn’t coming from a character. It’s more removed than that, though not necessarily omniscient. This approach is important to the story for a few reasons. (1) The “third bear” isn’t the main character but looms over everything, and thus must be introduced first; therefore, the story cannot be from a particular POV to open. It can be argued that these opening paragraphs are still in some ways from the POV of the farmer Horley, who becomes the main character, but even given this heretic interpretation, they’re not overtly so. (2) The story is in part about fate, and this POV reinforces the inexorability of the events by placing all of the characters in danger; if the story starts out distant and only then focuses in on a character later, no one is safe, in a sense. (3) The tone of this POV plays well against the violence throughout the story, in my opinion, by being somewhat matter-of-fact.

—Because this is the first appearance of the bear, but I don’t want a direct description (I want a picture of the creature to develop over time), it must be visceral and yet incomplete. So I give readers a view of the bear as the villagers would perceive it in their last moments—in fragments, but fragments that convey an overwhelming sense of the reality of the beast. The reader must believe in this physicality and this threat for the story to work. Once the reality is established, then I can say “no one really thought of it as bear near the end,” ramping up the mystery. But, first, I had to describe the creature, and make it stick.

—Because the story starts in a somewhat deliberate way, the inclusion of “near the end,” presaging events later in the story, is important to further establishing tension.

—“Theeber”/”seether”/”seabird” is an important transition to me. “Theeber” provides a connection to other stories, a linkage. The devolution to “seether” fits the mood of the story—it’s a situation seething/stewing without coming to a boil, in a sense—people going around in circles trying to find an out from an impossible situation. The further devolution to “seabird” may be obscure to some, but to me indicates a sudden release—an image of a bird flying across the sky. It appeals to me in a poetic way as an ironic counterpoint to the fact that the rest of the paragraph is all about emphasizing being trapped, of being isolated—the closeness to the bear in terms of the kinds of details offered is claustrophobic and the village is deliberately placed in the “deep forest” without context of other landmarks like cities or countries; it is an island alone—but then the end of the paragraph, perhaps teasingly, suggests some form of escape through this sudden name-change, which is also an image.

—Why “the third bear”? Well, because the third bear is “just right”, and the story is meant to poke holes in fairytale like machine gun fire through cheesecloth.

“Finding Sonoria”: John Crake and Jim Bolger sat in Crake’s living room. A small blue-green postage stamp lay on the old, low coffee table in front of them.

—Some opening paragraphs should be simple. I like this one because it sets out all you need to know about the story: there are two main characters, and something about that stamp is the trigger for the story.

—In this story, I go back and forth, in the same scenes, between Crake’s and Bolger’s points of view, so this paragraph is deliberately unclear as to whether it’s going to be from either character’s POV. It’s also not clearly omniscient. I reinforce the POV shifts by following up the opening paragraph with one para about Crake and one about Bolger, after which the paragraphs ping pong back and forth between their two points of view.

—I run the risk with this story of the reader not taking the bait offered by the initial paragraph(s), but the story is much stronger in seeing continually the struggle between the two men, and some similarities, by going back and forth between points of view, and not initially also stating the obvious. I could have started with a paragraph that read something like “John Crake had hired Jim Bolger to find a country that might not exist. Crake and Bolger sat in Crake’s living room. A small blue-green postage stamp Crake claimed came from this country lay between them on the coffee table…” etc. But this would have hinted at supremacy for Crake’s point of view, and I also felt it was important for the reader to initially learn about the stamp in the same way Bolger learns about it. Suspension of disbelief is part of my reasoning, certainly. There are elements of belief and disbelief expressed by the characters themselves that require an incremental approach, and this reason mirrors what the reader needs for the story to work.

—I was also reluctant to offer up the element of the strange or bizarre in the first paragraph for another reason: the emphasis by story’s end is somewhere else. A more direct approach, to me, implied a more direct ending.

“The Situation”: How It Began: Degradation of Existing Processes. My Manager was extremely thin, made of plastic, with paper covering the plastic. They had always hoped, I thought, that one day her heart would start, but her heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her ribcage, animated to lift and fall only by her breathing. Sometimes, when my Manager was angry, she would become so hot that the paper covering her would ignite, and the plastic beneath would begin to melt. I didn’t know what to say in such situations. It seemed best to say nothing and avert my gaze. Over time, the runneled plastic of her arms became a tableau of insane images, leviathans and tall ships rising out of the whorling, and stranger things still. I would stare at her arms so I did not have to stare at her face. I never knew her name. We were never allowed to know our Manager’s name. (Some called her their “Damager,” though.)

—The subtitling that begins with paragraph one, “How It Began,” is intended to mimic business reports while also increasing tension and allowing me to cut between scenes elegantly without the need for typical transitions. This last is doubly important because some of the sections then double back to past events.

—What to make of a manager made of plastic, who has a dry leaf as a heart? You might be inclined to take it figuratively, and thus I follow up with a reference to heat melting the plastic and igniting the paper. This is probably the “adjustment” moment for most readers. They’re going to have to take a leap of faith that I know what I’m doing—that sometimes the figurative will have a literal beachhead in the real world of the story. By this time, too, readers will have had to acclimate themselves to the idea that the story is going to be surreal, and that it may not fit into standard definitions of fantasy or SF.

—And yet, what is the subject of the story thus far? It’s set in an office, obviously, and an employee is talking about a manager. This, then, is the anchor. The descriptions are absurdist to some degree, although backed up by specific detail so that what seems like subtext poking up through the surface of the story is, in fact, not subtext. But the situation itself is mundane. Without that mundane aspect, the elements of mad invention in the story would not work. (Note also that the title is not something baroque like “The Mad Happenings at My Place of Employ During the Time of Walking Fish” for the same reason.)

—What else do we know from this paragraph? We already know that the manager gets angry at our narrator. We know that the employee doesn’t necessarily think this is fair, and we know the manager has a reputation for inflicting harm of some sort on employees. We know that the company is fairly dehumanizing—the narrator isn’t even allowed to know his manager’s name.

—Whether you read further depends on whether you’re willing to accept the initial absurdities, and in part that depends on how good I am at rendering those absurdities in specific detail. The manager doesn’t just have “a leaf where her heart should’ve been.” The manager’s “heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her ribcage, animated to lift and fall only by her breathing.” The manager doesn’t just “catch on fire when angry,” the paper ignites and the plastic melts, resulting in weird scenes burned into her arms.

Motion, then, plays a large role in this opening paragraph, and is a good way to create action. The scene itself, if you were to imagine it, is static: an employee facing his manager. But the motions described play against this static quality. What’s happening? Nothing, really. What’s happening? A lot is happening.

“Fixing Hanover”: When Shyver can’t lift it from the sand, he brings me down from the village. It lies there on the beach, entangled in the seaweed, dull metal scoured by the sea, limpets and barnacles stuck to its torso. It’s been lost a long time, just like me. It smells like rust and oil still, but only a tantalizing hint.

—A quiet hook to a story: immediately in scene, in character, in setting.

—What is “it”? It’s heavy and worn. We want to know what “it” is.

—We also want to know why the narrator says “just like me” and why rust and oil would be “tantalizing” to him.

—To me, this is a somewhat workmanlike opening, but it does start at the moment something happens, and it starts there rather than in the village with the recovered item because the few paragraphs before they return to the village give me time to pass on some necessary information while appearing to simply be advancing the scene.

“Three Days in a Border Town”: When you come out of the desert into the border town, you feel like a wisp of smoke rising up into the cloudless sky. You’re two eyes and a dry tongue. But you can’t burn up; you’ve already passed through flame on your way to ash. Not all the blue in the sky could moisten you.”

—This opening paragraph is preceded by a para in italics describing in sensual detail a man getting out of bed, but that paragraph is almost more like an epigraph in terms of its placement. It’s there primarily to establish that there will be flashbacks.

—I want you to feel the heat, I want you to believe you’re in the desert, but I also want echoes with events later in the story, so “not all the blue…” refers to something another characters says to her later in a flashback.

—And why “on your way to ash”? It’s a bit of over-emphasis, but it speaks to her emotional situation, which is similar to her physical condition coming out of the desert.

—When originally published, the paragraph ended with “Even the sweat between your breasts is ethereal, otherworldly. Not all the blue in the sky could moisten you. A mirage has more substance.” I cut the first and third sentences in this excerpt for different reasons. The last sentence, “mirage,” is overkill—it says nothing that hasn’t already been said earlier in the paragraph. The first, “Even the sweat…” struck me as unintentionally funny when I re-read it. Really? That sweat is “ethereal”? I don’t believe it. Since it’s clear soon enough that the character is a woman, I don’t need “breasts,” and indeed I decided I wasn’t comfortable with that being a defining characteristic right off the bat. There’s another reason to delete both sentences, as well: they’re stealing oxygen from “Not all the blue in the sky could moisten you,” which may be dramatic, but is, as stated, an echo from later in the story.

—Finally, the story is written in second person, which isn’t used much, and therefore the emphasis on the heat, on drawing the reader into the story through that element, is also a way of trying to distract the reader from an unusual way of telling a story. If I can be visceral and specific enough, then what is strange may not seem as strange as it could be.

I’d talk about endings, but that would require revealing spoilers…okay, time to go collapse again…

9 comments on “The Third Bear: Story Beginnings

  1. David H. says:

    I loved “Fixing Hanover” when I first read in in Gevers’ “Extraordinary Engines.” That was my first bit of VanderMeer, and it got me trying out “City of Saints and Madmen.” I kind of wish we had a book set in the “Hanover” universe, but Ambergris is great, too. :)

  2. jeff vandermeer says:


    There’s a lot of compression in that Hanover story so it would lend itself to expansion. Problem is, the popularity of steampunk automatically makes my brain want to go in some other direction.

  3. Paul Smith says:

    I wouldn’t listen to a thing that EYH guy says, I hear he is a terrible fop who reads far too much nineteenth Century French poetry.

    I was a little saddened by the lack of exposition in the collection as an afterward but I understand what you mean about intepretation and it was more background I was interested in then being told the meaning. If you are going to talk about this stuff on the blog though, that is great.

    I interpreted (the key word) “Fixing Hanover” as being somewhat anti-steampunk, not in the way of saying steampunk is a bad thing but going against the grain of the usual steampunk ideas in its themes (although I can’t really say more without spoiling it). That is only my view, but that and the sort of proto-Colonial ideas are part of what I enjoyed about the story.

    I hate to be the guy standing around for the magician to come back and do more tricks, but I did want to ask if you plan to do any more future Veniss stories? Three Nights in a Border Town ends at the perfect place to fit the old adage always leave them wanting more.

  4. jeff vandermeer says:

    I have a fragment of a story titled “The Circus on the Bridge” that’s the next after “Three Days” but it’s never really come together.

    “Fixing” is anti-steampunk but anything with an airship in it is now steampunk so it has now absorbed Its own negation.

    The story notes in my prior collection were also seized upon by a few reviewers as a sign of weakness and were misinterpreted.

  5. Paul Smith says:

    Oh yeah, I forgot in order to be a popular reviewer you have to bag on everything, that actually explains a lot. As a terrible writer who hopes one day to be a less terrible writer I found the notes helpful, which I believe was the spirit in which it was intended.

  6. Well, it came out at the same time as my nonfiction collection, and I had thought to connect the two by having both be of use to other writers who might save some time reading about my experiences. A way of paying it back. But at least four reviewers used my honesty in the notes as fodder to attack certain stories. But it is also true that such notes influence readers, too, and make it harder for alternative readings to occur.

  7. Larry says:

    Speaking of your non-fiction, when is the second collection coming out? I seem to recall it’s sometime in the next few months or year, but my memory is a bit fuzzy on that. Very curious about the non-fiction collections that writers release, especially after reading a dozen or so that Borges had published in his lifetime.

  8. It’ll be out in November. I’m going over the copy-edits this weekend.

  9. Larry says:

    Wonderful. I’ll be getting a copy whenever it hits Amazon, I do believe.

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