Getting Rid of the Fish Head
Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog
I said I would write about the fish head this week so here goes. The fish head is the writing you do when you sit down at your desk and don’t know where to begin. Except that you know you have to start somewhere so you write the fish head. It’s main function is to get you to start writing.
I am a big believer in fish heads. Without them, I suspect many major works of literature would never have happened. And often the fish head is entertaining, or has some interest to you, the author, or you wouldn’t have written it. And in the early stages of a draft, it is often impossible to recognize that your opening pages are a fish head. And that’s OK. Keep the fish head in the first draft if it is too painful to get rid of it.
But once you start revising your novel or magazine article, the fish head usually needs to be lopped off. Why? Because it doesn’t add anything. It just sits there, and likely isn’t your best possible opening. An easy way to excise the fish head is to save it in another file. That way you won’t feel too much pain about chopping it off. The nice old fish head is still waiting around to help you the next time. Another way to get rid of the fish head is to make it a prologue. But be wary. If it’s a prologue, it needs to be an exceptionally well-written prologue, and not just the usual sloppy old fish head that writers write to get going.
I have a prologue in my Gothic novel The Wives of Bath that my editor said was a fish head. She felt it didn’t add anything to my novel about a murder in a girls’ boarding school. I disagreed. My prologue started with the sentence: “The ghostly woman on the giant tricycle stared down at me like an old friend.” My editor wanted my book to start with the first two sentences of the first page: “My name is Mouse––Mouse Bradford. Mary Beatrice Bradford, if I want to be long-winded about it.”
Comparing the sentences, I have no doubts now that, “My name is Mouse” is the stronger opening sentence. It’s more idiosyncratic and could only have been written by the narrator.
The first sentence of my prologue doesn’t smack of the narrator’s personality. It’s a description of a Gothic dream that could easily have been written by a number of other writers. Still, it was only four paragraphs long. So it wasn’t a long, long boring fish head. And it was based on a creepy dream about a buried body. Its atmospheric aspect was why my editor gave eventually in and let me keep it.
But I don’t think it was the right decision. I’m telling you all this to demonstrate how hard it is for even an older veteran like myself to get rid of the fish head. But that’s the kind of expert chopping we have to do to strengthen our work. We need to kill our darlings, as G.K. Chesterton once said. (Well, maybe not all our darlings, but definitely the ones that don’t give the story what it needs.)