Re: Special Economics

Many moons ago, there was a Meetup about beginnings.  At the time, I was struggling with writing a beginning, and I particularly had in mind the Four Elements of a good beginning: Character, Conflict, Specificity, Credibility. We read the beginnings of several good stories, and I was especially impressed by the beginning of “Special Economics,” by Maureen McHugh.

Jieling set up her boom box in a plague-trash market in the part where people sold parts for cars. She had been in the city of Shenzhen for a little over two hours but she figured she would worry about a job tomorrow. Everybody knew you could get a job in no time in Shenzhen. Jobs everywhere.

There’s Character in how Jieling exudes confidence and ambition; Conflict implied in her search for a job; Specificity in terms like “plague-trash market;” and Credibility in how the prose plunges into the story, confident that you will come along. I could hardly wait to read the whole story. It just took me a while to track down a copy of the collection where it originally appeared, The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. And it was worth the hunt.

It’s a near future SF story. Future enough that the factory is making organic batteries. Near enough that Americans will buy anything “green” even if it doesn’t work all that well. Jieling finds her job, but, well, that’s where she starts to live in interesting times.

I enjoyed watching her get out of trouble with spunk and ingenuity, but I found it more instructive to re-read the story and see how its opening passage is crafted.  The first few paragraphs are like tips of an iceberg. As you read on, you see what’s underneath. For example, “plague-trash” refers to the mounds of discarded goods left behind after a massive bird-flu epidemic. Word by word, the first few paragraphs are unpacked by the first few pages into a whole world.

I am also noticing (not for the first time) that you’re not going to have things like character and conflict, or specificity and credibility in a beginning unless it’s in the rest of the story. I did manage to settle on a beginning that I liked for the story I was struggling with. In that case, I had to sort out the whole story to decide where it was going. And the last part I wrote was the most difficult part — the beginning.

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