Thursday, January 31, 2008
To enter, email a writing-related question to edittorrent at gmail dot com. How easy is that?
In other news...
Anyone going to Love Is Murder this weekend? I'll be on a panel tomorrow afternoon and I think I'm taking pitches, but other than that, I'll just be doing the good old conference schmooze. Be sure to say hello if you're there!
And the answer you gave here is ... well, it's what I was thinking you'd say.
Hmm. Does that mean I'm predictable... or consistent? :)
Jeanne asked for good and bad examples of opening with dialogue. Well, the Giles opening is a good one, at least for comedy, as it's immediately undercut by not-dialogue (a quick cut to her in a cheerleader outfit). (Transcript is from www.buffyworld.com.)
This is madness! What can you have been thinking? YouWhat's fun about this opening? Well, first, it's not our first encounter with Giles, so we know it's him by his voice. We already know he's a bit pompous. But even if we didn't know about his character, we can glean from his speech pattern -- "What can you have been thinking?"-- whoa, buddy, what a sexy tense! Most of us would say, boringly, "What ARE you thinking?" But not Giles. He is precise-- using the modal (can) and the present perfect continuous (have been thinking). So notice that the dialogue is more than just the conveyance of a quick hook or of information-- it is in his voice, and tells us a lot about him. It's also not just one stray line-- there's plenty there to give us some information about the "sitch," as Buffy would say. So... what do we know from this passage of opening dialogue?
are the Slayer! Lives depend upon you! (begins pacing) I make allowances
for your youth, but I expect a certain amount of responsibility, and
instead of which you enslave yourself to this, this... (stops pacing)
We know Giles is a man (of course, we can hear his voice on TV), and we know he's a bit pompous. We know he sees himself as in charge here (I make allowances) but we can tell he's not really in control (she's done something he disapproves of). We know he is not a tyrant. He rants at her-- he doesn't behead her. We know he's talking to the Slayer, who is young. We know lives depend on her, yadda, yadda, again to quote Buffy. We know a central conflict for him is between her youth and her responsibility, and another might be his sense of powerlessness both to protect her youth and to make her accept her responsibility. He's not really in charge, and he senses that.
And of course the dialogue sets up the big joke, that this terrible cult he's worried about is... cheerleading. And that punchline is NOT in dialogue but a sight gag-- on the word "cult," the camera cuts to show Buffy in a cheerleading uniform. (And it actually, later, transpires that he's sort of right.)
So... that's a good example, though keep in mind that TV (more than film or novels) is dialogue intensive, so many episodes will start with dialogue. However, this would work in a novel too, though we don't have a camera to cut to the cheerleading outfit. We could have, "Buffy snapped her gum and looked down proudly at her uniform. The sweater proclaimed 'SHS' in orange felt across her little breasts. The skippy skirt promised flips and kicks and splits, all of which she thought she could do, given enough incentive."
Not as funny, but it's a nice counterpart to the dialogue.
So contrast that with a bad example, which I'm making up to protect the guilty. :)
"What do you think you're doing?"
The security guard shoved open the door and shone the light inside.
So what do I find wrong with this? Hmm. Well, I finish those two lines-- so I'm two lines and two paragraphs into the story-- and I know virtually nothing. Someone's doing something (I don't know what) and there's a security guard and a door, so presumably it's in a building, but it could be in a storage container (it's perfectly legal, btw, to say-- shoved open the storage container door and.... in openings, if you can slide in a bit of info, all the better). Am I the security guard? (That is, is the security guard the POV character?) Or am I whoever is doing whatever behind that door?
Also notice the sequence is off, and this is done in the illogical (non-chronological) order specifically to put the line of dialogue first. I see this way too much-- in order to start with the dialogue, the writer reverses the order of events (so effect -- "What are you doing?" -- before cause -- opening the door, shining the light, and seeing someone doing something). Fiction is a temporal (time-oriented) medium, sort of like life, so when you mess with sequence, you're messing with our perception of what's going on. That can be fun in Catch-22, but that was the purpose-- to mess with our minds the way the war messed with Yossarian's. Don't mess with our minds just to get the dialogue before the cause of the dialogue.
And finally, there's no emotion here-- no quote tag telling us tone of voice, no depiction of the guard's facial expression, no eerie words describing the setting. And no internal reaction from anyone. The passage feels barren and cold to me. What reason have you given me to care enough to read on, huh?
This actually is the sort of dialogue opening I've seen most, and I think no one would actually choose to open a scene, much less a book, that way. Rather someone sometime somewhere proclaimed that books should open on a line of dialogue, and there was some justification given (it's active, it draws the reader in, it's a hook, etc.), as if the mere FACT of a dialogue opening meant activity, hooking, and all that.
And so we suddenly saw a bunch of openings with quote marks.
Sometimes the writer would try very hard and come up with something clever to put inside the quote marks:
"You're losing your shirt, sir." (Of course, later it turns out he's in a poker game.)
"Ah, the old in-out, my favorite direction."
"Let's screw, okay?" (Both of the latter two have a screw driver involved, and a block of wood.)
But that's a hook for a hook's sake. Not to say it never works, because it does, especially in a comedy. But notice how disconnected the hook is. It's a hook. Someone has to utter these immortal hook words, but it could be almost anyone. There are few of the voice markers that tell us something about the speaker, and none of conversational markers that tell us about what this is about or who is listening. (In contrast, look back at Giles's longer-- and that's important-- quote... we learn not just about him, but about Buffy.)
There's no "point of view". That is, we don't know if we're the speaker or the listener. Opening IN a character POV is hardly required-- that's why we still have omniscient (overall) POV, for scene openings, I think. But to open with disconnected dialogue is to open in NO POV. We're not in anyone's head; we don't know whether that line of dialogue is important personally to someone or not; we don't know what the internal reaction is. In fact, it's just a line of speech-- there's no actual dialogue, because there's no interaction with the reader. This is far from active... it makes the reader into a passive receptacle of the "hook".
(It's not in omniscient, btw, because omniscient supposes some comprehensive understanding, which is why so many books open with an omniscient "pan shot" of the setting-- so we get an "above" view of where we are, before the perspective "zooms in" to one character to let us know who we are. With bare dialogue, there's no omniscient narrative presence, just a, I don't know, not even a camera, because that first line doesn't SHOW anything visual. A tape recorder, maybe.)
So here's this voice, but because it's prose and there's no actor speaking, we don't know much about the voice (whether it's male or female, young or old, us or them). And for some reason, there's seldom a quote tag (he said), so we don't even get a clue to the gender and tone of voice that way. (Notice that "What do you think you're doing?" the security guard said, and "What do you think you're doing?" the security guard shouted, have very different feels, even if only one word is different. That's because we're told with that word "shouted" to hear it in a loud tone of voice. At some point, I should talk about, btw, why I think quote tags like that should probably, all else equal, go first-- quick reason, so the reader reads the quote in the right tone from the first.)
So let's say you LOVE dialogue openings and want to use one, and you have just the right line for it? Okay. Let me suggest that you do not stop with a single bare line in quote marks hanging there all bereft and lonely underneath "Chapter One."
Who is saying this? Can we tell something about person from the way he/she says it? No? Then see if you can rewrite the line a bit to make it more like that person. See how the Buffy scriptwriter changed what would be prosaic-- "What are you thinking?" -- to something pompous-- "What can you have been thinking?" -- to tell us more about this speaker. Can you do that?
Now consider a quote tag, first, because it tells us more about who is speaking and how, but also because it might reveal whose POV we're in? Are we in the speaker's POV? The listener's? Or in that nice comforting omniscient embrace? (Be careful about the convention of dialogue paragraphing here-- especially at the start of a story, when we have no context, we assume whoever is "in" the paragraph with the dialogue spoke it. So if you want to have the POV of the listener reacting to the speech, go with a new paragraph.)
You don't like that? You want a nice barren line all by itself? Okay. How about putting the context and all that in an immediate next paragraph?
"Let's screw, shall we?" ( the "shall we" comes from a different man -- this has to be a man either way!-- than "okay," don't you think)
Herman smiled so winningly over his upheld screwdriver that Sadie forgave him for his really, really bad pun. (I changed my initial THE really, really bad pun, by the way, to HIS really, really bad pun, just to drive home-- no pun intended-- that he was the one who spoke the pun above. Whenever you can clarify attribution simply, do so.)
So we know that we're in Sadie's POV, but that Herman said the dialogue. We still don't know the setting, except it's somewhere that needs a screwdriver or two. But that can wait (just a paragraph or two). We have a bit of context here, and now Sadie can answer him back, and we'll learn a bit more about her and their relationship, depending on whether her answer is mild or mischievous or shocked or ....
So... dialogue opening okay if you do it well, but it's not just okay because you do it in dialogue. :) It still has to accomplish what openings should accomplish-- that is, giving us a reason to care enough to read on (which can include but doesn't have to all that setting, context, POV, emotion, interaction, action, character, whatever).
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Starting with dialogue was a trend from a few years back-- I do remember trying to force a dialogue opening!
But generally, frankly (you do want me to be frank, right? You know, my husband's an attorney, and so is Theresa, and I don't know about Theresa, but the dh says that anyone who says "frankly" isn't going to be frank, and if an attorney says, "Trust me," you should run the other way, and I'm ALWAYS saying, "Trust me!" So maybe we should let Theresa say whether you should trust me!) what was I saying? I forget.
Oh, yeah, dialogue to start a story. Well, I'm always willing to be swayed by wonderfulness, but generally, I am not interested in a dialogue start. Sure, if it's wonderful dialogue-- I'm reminded of a Buffy episode opening, where Giles's lovely voice was going on and on about how he couldn't believe Buffy the Vampire Slayer had joined a cult, and it's such a terrible cult-- and then the camera cuts to Buffy, and she's wearing a cheerleader outfit. (Cheerleader=cult in Giles's mind, see?)
That's a good dialogue opening. But trust me (eek!)... most of the dialogue openings I've read are NOT intriguing, though they might be if read by Giles. (I love Giles.)
What's the prob with a dialogue opening?
Well, if it's generic enough that we understand who is saying this and what this is about, it's too generic to start YOUR book.
And if it's not generic, and we don't understand it, are you risking losing us to confusion in the first sentence?
Dialogue openings can work... but I'd say if you want to go it that way, hook it to a tag that tells us who is saying this. Please.
But then, if it works, it works. It's just that so far, it hasn't tended to work for me... it's a low-percentage opening, in my experience. But if it's actually right for your book, go for it! Just consider adding a quote tag that tells us who said that and why or how or something.
Let's start with our fearless first volunteer, Ian.
The airport was a pandemonium of police, journalists, and strange, beautiful people in colorful costumes. Katie Malone watched them in fascination from the comparative coolness of the concourse. The temperature was threatening to break the hundred-degree mark for the third day in a row, and the air conditioning strained to keep up. She watched the jet from Deep Six taxi across the tarmac, circled by a woman sporting feathered wings.
Ian, maybe you can tell us what you were going for here. I'll just give my impressions, but tell us what effect you want this to have.
Notice that the POV character is named right away, second sentence. I like that. I'm simple-- I like to know who I am from the get-go. Keep in mind that editors have been reading voraciously all their lives. That is, confusion here-- you have to think of what two different readers are going to feel reading your opening-- your actual target reader, say the woman in the airport who reads 15 novels a year and loves Robert Ludlum, say, and then the editor who reads 130 books a year in many genres/categories, edits 50 books a year, and reads thousands of submissions. Okay, let's keep in mind, you get to number 1 (target reader) only through number 2 (editor). Now the editor should be reading as a stand-in for the target audience (her employer's customers); however, the editor is more likely to be a constant reader than anyone else you might meet. (That is, do NOT ask Theresa and me how many books we're reading today... it's scary, how much we read.) So never forget that your editor is a reader too, but one who is perhaps a bit more ... jaded, but also more open to innovation, than you think your target reader is. (I personally believe that all of our target readers are more open than we give them credit for.)
So... Seriously, do 747 pilots have to make as many calculations as writers do???
So yes, you can grab an editor with the perfect opening for this type of book, for this target reader, but editors have been (cough) known to buy books that grab THEM personally. Just keep that in mind if you love your opening and think it's cutting-edge and innovative-- you could be appealing to an editor who has been waiting for something different.
Or, then again, you could be dealing with me, who is a pretty conventional sort, and really wants to identify with the POV character. And I want to know my name, darn it!!!! So tell me already, and then we can move on!
So I must say, I like it when we start in a POV, and that character's name is identified right away. Thanks, Ian, and hello, I'm Katie Malone. :)
But notice the first sentence is setting-- we know we're in an airport:
The airport was a pandemonium of police, journalists, and strange, beautiful people in colorful costumes.
This is one of those genre things. I'm a romance editor, so I'd be asking for something inside, more of a feeling, or a setting sentence that tells something about how the POV character is feeling, like "The airport was designed to make her feel alone-- all those kissing couples and goodbying families." That is, in romance, I would be asking for some emotion in the first line, just to set up that more emotional feel.
But in a thriller, I'd want more excitement, more sense that this is a setting where something thrilling is about to happen. See how this moves beyond the generic in that third item of the list-- police and journalists, no big deal (could be the championship college basketball team is coming home), but strange, beautiful people in colorful costumes? Immediate re-jiggering. Maybe it's Mardi Gras and this is Rio... or maybe this is Gay Pride week in San Francisco. See, you don't have to give all the answers in the first few lines... the trick is getting the reader to ask the right questions.
The temperature was threatening to break the hundred-degree mark for the third day in a row, and the air conditioning strained to keep up.
Now this I'd probably have as the start of the second paragraph. Why? Well, remember what Theresa said about paragraph unity. Inside the airport, the journalists, the strange people, Katie... that's unified. And the 100 degree temp is OUTSIDE. (The airconditioning is inside; all the more reason for this sentence to be in a second paragraph, which is usually a transitional paragraph, so can unite inside and outside.)
Notice also that it breaks up the "inside-Katie" sentences-- more reason for it to go elsewhere.
Back to Katie:
She watched the jet from Deep Six taxi across the tarmac, circled by a woman sporting feathered wings.
Okay, something to observe here. Notice that the "hook," the unusual aspect (woman with wings) is withheld to the end of the first paragraph. That is, you don't need to put the hook in the first line! Trust us... we'll read the whole first paragraph. :) (You all are going to think we're really lazy, if we're reassuring you about that.
Now my only thought here is that, well, two thoughts.... 1) I like ending the first paragraph on a slight puzzle, especially attached to a more understandable situation (woman waiting at airport). and 2) Read that aloud. What's circled? The tarmac (last noun), the jet? Or Katie? Really, that past participle could modify any of the three noun/pronouns in the sentence. I first read it that the tarmac was circled (because participles usually modify the closest noun), but then it made more sense that it was the jet. But then I envisioned the feathered woman swooping UNDER the jet (circled?) and that sounded dangerous, so I wondered if maybe Katie was being circled---
You don't want me coming up with this many scenarious, just because you didn't put the modifier in precisely the right place. You want me effortlessly moving on to paragraph 2 with just the right picture-- your picture-- in mind.
So... picky, picky. I know. What the hey. It's a good opening-- I had to strain to find something I could pick at. :)
Now stop and think about what the reader will be asking and thinking and waiting for at this juncture?
I am thinking, "So how is Katie FEELING!!!" because I read mostly for character. (Really, it's embarrassing-- I was joint-reading a Dorothy Dunnett novel with a group, and they all knew not only who poisoned the hero, but also how it happened, and I pretty much missed all that, but I totally knew how the hero FELT about being betrayed by his loyal employee. :)
Another reader might be thinking, "What's with the feathered woman?"
And a third might wonder, "Deep Six? Cool! A special ops team, right?"
Those are all good reader questions, and a sign that the intro (mostly) worked.
I will say, it felt like what I'd call an adventure thriller, but one with a woman protagonist (maybe; I'm willing to withhold judgment to find out). The adventure is in the technological setting (airport) mixed with exotica (strange people), but with a tinge of the occult, that is, the plane circled by the angel.
Now I know I'd be annoyed if this turns out to be a small town drama about a marching band competition. :)
So make sure your opening sends the right message. This is a very good opportunity to bring in the virgin reader, the friend or relative who knows nothing about your book (but isn't really a virgin-- reads other novels). Have this reader read the first page, but don't hand over anything more. Ask, what do you feel? What do you think is happening? What do you expect to happen, given that opening? What sort of book does this remind you of?
Then listen and stay open. Every writer can learn from every reader, and once you decide you know it all (because you're already published, or because you were on some bestseller list, or because your current editor loves you, or whatever excuse you come up with for not bothering to keep learning), you have stopped growing, and after that is only... death. :) Readers know all. Listen to them. It's cheaper than printing out a manuscript and mailing it to an editor and getting back a form letter that says, "Sorry, not for us."
Thanks, Ian, for volunteering your opening! I'd keep reading. (I did, actually, when I read it on the Amazon page! Here it is: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00122GTTG)
Now of course, if there's something that appeals to me, I don't quibble. But there are a couple things that make me think that probably the writer doesn't have an "inner ear"--
--Too many names on the first page-- introducing too many characters.
--A clumsily long opening sentence that tries to tell all right away. I like some establishing in the first page, but I really am willing to read a whole page to get it. :)
-- A fake action opening where it's not clear who is involved or how.
-- Unclear POV-- who are we, and what does that mean? Use your point of view approach wisely. If you are starting inside the point of view of the character, then start INSIDE, not outside. That is, give some quick glimpse into who this is mentally. But if you're starting with an omniscient (outside) POV, for goodness sake, use it wisely-- and that's a quick setting establishment or a cultural observation. Think seriously what the opening tells the reader. Don't start with dialogue just because that's trendy. Read the opening of books you admire, and think about the effect on you, and think about the effect you want to have on your reader.
-- Awkwardness. Remember, I'm an editor. That means I am -very- sensitive to language. I will read on regardless, but if your first sentence has a typo, a grammatical error, or an awkward usage, then I'm going to be watching for problems in the paragraphs to come-- that is, I'm going to assess what comes in a jaundiced viewpoint. Don't make your friends read the whole book... but have lots read the first paragraph. :)
-- Trendy openings. Don't be trendy. Whatever the latest trend in openings is, it's probably not right for your book, because it didn't evolve from your book. Again, what do you want your readers to know at the very start? Make it as sharp and interesting as you can-- but make it yours.
Well, I guess you're not bored with all the talk about openings. :)
Here's what I think we should do. I'm going to try to formulate a checklist of sorts for red flags. We'll also talk a little about why these things function as red flags, and then if you're all up for it, we can parse some sample openings. Reader Ian has already volunteered his opening sentences, and if any of you want the same treatment, email the first three sentences of your manuscript to edittorrent at gmail dot com. We'll do them anonymously unless you tell us it's okay to use your first name. (I'm hoping Alicia will join in on this, but she's going through a very busy period right now. Nothing bad, so no need to worry, but she's got some extra stuff happening right now that's occupying her time.)
So here's a rough checklist of red flags, organized more or less into units. Keep in mind that even when these things aren't technical errors, they serve as red flags because they often indicate a certain lack of authorial control or writerliness.
- Are the structures repetitive over the representative sample?
- Are there any participial phrases? (Introductory present participial phrases, in particular, can be associated with ineffective writing.)
- Are all the sentence subjects a character name or a pronoun?
- Are there any misplaced modifiers? (Huge red flag.)
- Are there any dangling modifiers? (This will almost automatically result in rejection.)
- Is there a lack of prepositional phrases, or are other weaker phrases used in place of prepositional phrases? (Prepositional phrases read more cleanly than others, such as participial phrases.)
Note: The most common sentence structure in the realm of fiction goes:
character name or pronoun --> verb --> maybe some predicative material like a direct objectShake it up, but don't sacrifice lucidity. Use occasional compounds and move phrases around when you can. Note: moving phrases around is a tricky business and can result in all kinds of structural errors. Learn the right way to do it -- sentence combining techniques will come in handy here -- and never ever lose sight of the Golden Rule of Modifiers. We all know the Golden Rule of Modifiers, right? Modifiers go next to the words they modify. There are plenty of exceptions to that rule, but in general, you're better off following it.
- Are the main verbs in the sentence verbs of being or appearance? (conjugations of to be, to appear, to seem, to look, etc.)
- Are the main verbs in the sentence static rather than dynamic?
- Is the sentence loaded with "verb words" -- words that our minds interpret as verbs even when they're used as some other part of speech? (Gerunds, participles, and verbs, oh my! -- too many verb words confuse a sentence.)
- Are there any temporal or sequencing errors? (Huge red flag. Watch out for actions that cannot be simultaneous but are written as if they are. "Burned to the ground, the school was rebuilt.")
- Is the main verb slot filled with a weak verb while strong verbs are shunted to secondary slots? ("After skittering to a halt, she looked to the scoreboard for her final race time." Skittering is much stronger than looked. Try something like, "She skittered to a halt under the scoreboard where her final race time would be posted." Or some other phrasing that puts the stronger verb in the main verb slot.)
I can't overstate the importance of strong, vivid, dynamic verbs ... used sparingly. Think of verbs as solitaire gemstones set beautifully against a sentence. One really gorgeous verb will sparkle. Lots of lesser verbs will look a little gaudy and cluttered.
- Are the words flat and dull?
- Are the words overly simplistic?
- Are the words too academic?
- Are any ten-dollar words used incorrectly?
This is another tricky area because voice is so dependent on vocabulary. Ideally, you want to aim for the middle -- something vivid and varied enough to be interesting, but not so esoteric as to be unreadable. If the reader can't understand the word, you lose the reader.
Point of View
- Are there "distancing" phrases? (she thought, he wanted, she believed, etc.)
- If multiple characters are interacting, can we tell which is the viewpoint character?
- Is there too much telling and not enough showing? Another way to phrase it: is there too much exposition and not enough scene narrative? (Please! I'm begging you! Stop opening with exposition!)
It's really hard to come up with a simple checklist for point of view problems, even though these are the problems that often separate a ready manuscript from an almost-ready manuscript. Also, in my experience, point of view edits are the hardest and most frustrating for both editor and author, so point of view errors usually make me want to reject and avoid that set of problems.
In general, keep this in mind: point of view is a spectrum ranging from subjective to objective. The preference these days in commercial fiction is for highly subjective points of view. This means you have to narrate from inside a single character's experience as much as possible. If you opt for another point of view, that's okay -- it's even okay to shift degrees of subjectivity/objectivity in some cases. But you have to do it effectively. And I really don't think I can come up with a checklist for all the red flags for all the ways it can be done ineffectively.
Then there's the whole list of case-by-case things I evaluate. For example, if we start with description -- setting the scene -- how quickly does the reader establish the scene and then move into action? How effective is the description? If we're starting with dialogue (one of those unfortunate recent trends), is the dialogue snappy enough to kick off an entire book? Regardless of how we start, do I get some sense of tension or problems to be solved?
I think this is enough to get us started. Checklists are imperfect for a whole lot of reasons, but most of the items on this checklist are problematic enough to deserve being treated as red flags.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
- The great majority of all manuscripts we buy need revisions to the openings. Meaning, even the good writers usually need help in this area. The percentage of manuscripts in this category is large enough that if this were an election, we'd be talking in terms of landslides.
- A seasoned editor can learn all she needs to know about a manuscript out of the opening lines. We don't need a whole chapter or scene. Three lines is usually more than I need to determine the rejectability of a manuscript.
Three lines. That's it. I parse those lines almost automatically, and I'm looking for specific red flags that will lead to a rejection. I am looking for a reason to reject, in other words, but that doesn't mean I'm closed off to a possible sale. I always want a sale with every single manuscript I read. I just know the odds are against it. Editorial fatalism.
If the first lines are decent but not as solid as we'd like, I'll frequently flip a few pages back and start reading at a random point. Sometimes the writing will improve once we're moving through a scene instead of just mucking around and trying to figure out how to get the wheels rolling.
But more often than not, any problems in the first three lines will repeat themselves throughout the text. My theory is that writers know how important the opening page is, and they make it as good as they can. If they're missing certain problems in the first page, it indicates they aren't aware that these things are problems, or at the very least, don't know how to fix these problems. Obviously rejectable manuscripts -- those with big red flags right from the outset -- usually deteriorate once you get past the openings.
Openings are hard. We know that. But we also know that openings are strong indicators of the condition of the rest of the text. So write a solid manuscript, of course, but do everything in your power to make that first page really dazzling. We'll be judging you on it -- and maybe on nothing besides it.
Do you want to know what the red flags are? Or are you sick of this subject and want to talk about other things?
Monday, January 28, 2008
But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For tragedy is an imitation, not of humans, but of action ... life consists of action, and its aim is a mode of action, not a quality. Character may determine men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.
~ The Poetics, Aristotle
Oh, yeah. I went there. Talkin bout our man Aristotle now. Today we're going to examine the conventional wisdom for openings and maybe come to understand why it became the convention.
There are six narrative elements, and the most important of these is action. Action is the foundation upon which the rest of the narrative builds. You might believe that character is the lynchpin of good storytelling -- and it is, undisputably; never doubt the importance of character -- but character is revealed best through action.
A dramatist is one who believes that the pure event, an action involving human beings, is more arresting than any comment that can be made upon it.
~ Thornton Wilder, as interviewed in Writers at Work, First Series
Characters are not about their thoughts and feelings, but about the expression of their thoughts and feelings. A man alone in a room may think great thoughts, but what of it? Good or bad, thrilling or stultifying, inane or dangerous -- these ideas are made meaningful through action. The great thinker must rise from his chair and do something in furtherance of his ideas. Otherwise, the reader is looking at an essay rather than a story.
Our lives are made up of moments, one following another from cradle to coffin. And so are stories. What happens in these moments? Characters may ponder and think great thoughts, but this isn't what the reader of fiction will remember after they close the cover and set the book aside. What the reader will remember is the action.
A thought which does not result in an action is nothing much, and an action which does not proceed from a thought is nothing at all.
~ Georges Bernanos, France Before the World of Tomorrow
This is why we say to start with action, in the middle of a scene, with an event underway. A character thinking thoughts ("setting up" the story) is boring. Give us action which is based in the opinions and qualities and emotions of the main character, and you will be more likely to engage the reader from the outset. Avoid trivial action that isn't reflective of these characters and the problems they must encounter.
Action is character.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, Notes for The Last Tycoon
Think about who your characters are before the conflict erupts. What is important to them? What is problematic? Scarlett O'Hara is super-pissed that Mammy makes her eat pancakes before the barbeque at Twelve Oaks. It's a minor problem, especially compared to war and lost romance which will become big problems before those pancakes are fully digested. But the pancake issue is meaningful to Scarlett and it's made meaningful to the reader because it dramatizes Scarlett's character through action. She is stubborn, rebellious, superficial. And these are the very qualities which are tested and pummeled and reshaped over the course of the story.
Character is action, and starting with action -- bodies in meaningful motion -- will draw the reader into the lives of your characters more swiftly than any other form of opening.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
I have just a few minutes before the next installment of the Masterpiece series of Jane Austen adaptations. Am I the only one watching these? Am I the only one who still twitches at the thought of that awful Persuasion adaptation? The didn't just blow it. They blew it to hell and gone, destroyed the plot so thoroughly that I feel like I need to sleep with the Ciaran Hinds dvd version under my pillow to cleanse my subconscious of any lingering ill effects.
(Note to self: Must stop obsessing over that atrocious adaptation.)
Anyway, I have this series of short articles I wrote several years ago for a writer's newsletter. It was reprinted in several small channels, so some of you may have seen one or another of these entries. I'm going to post them here over the next few weeks or so, just because I think they might serve as a useful counterpoint to our ongoing discussion of openings and sentence scrutiny.
The series was called Redlines. I'll post them in order because they sort of build off each other.
We'll lead off with a problem that I have encountered in almost every manuscript I have ever read: faulty paragraph logic. This is a particular issue in romance novels, with their unique need to continually balance action with the internal monologue of the point of view character. Consider the following paragraph:
The phone call spurred Kay into action. She could pay off her credit cards, be completely debt-free. She ran to the closet and grabbed a sweater, clean jeans, things she could pull on quickly. The news had been stunning, to learn that her raffle ticket had been pulled. Just the good news she had been praying for. Her shoelaces knotted and snarled from her haste. With the money from her winnings, she had options now, options that had not existed before she had plunked down two dollars for the ticket. She could fix her car. She ought to wear a raincoat, too, because the sky was gray. She didn't want the check to get wet! It was a new beginning, a chance to start over, and this time, she wasn't going to blow it.
In this example, there are two external plot factors: the phone call about winning a raffle, and getting dressed. As she is dressing, the internal monologue focuses on her plans to spend the money. The way the paragraph above is written, the two plot factors and internal monologue are interwoven – a technique that is often good and necessary, but here results in a choppy, disorganized paragraph.
When you have a paragraph logic problem, the solution is easy.
* First, identify the clusters of related ideas, the external and internal factors.
* Second, identify any causal relationships between them. For example, here we have a phone call that causes the rush to dress.
* Third, group related ideas together. Because the phone call causes her to get dressed, the ideas related to the phone call logically should precede the wardrobe discussion.
We end up with a paragraph like this:
The phone call spurred Kay into action. The news had been stunning, to learn that her raffle ticket had been pulled. Just the good news she had been praying for. She ran to the closet and grabbed a sweater, clean jeans, things she could pull on quickly. Her shoelaces knotted and snarled from her haste. She ought to wear a raincoat, too, because the sky was gray. She didn't want the check to get wet! With the money from her winnings, she had options now, options that had not existed before she had plunked down two dollars for the ticket. She could fix her car. She could pay off her credit cards, be completely debt-free. It was a new beginning, a chance to start over, and this time, she wasn't going to blow it.
Still not perfect -- we might consider, for example, whether this should be broken into two or more paragraphs. But the paragraph is better organized and easier to read. Again, sometimes braiding multiple lines of thought in one paragraph is a useful technique. But a little goes a long way, and too much results in paragraph organization problems.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
It would be very easy for me to go on a long rant here about all the ways people think my job is the equivalent of --
:: insert rant here ::
Whew. I feel better. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. ;)
Actually, I love my job. I love the woman I work for and the editors on my team. I love our writers and get a wicked thrill out of reading everything we publish well in advance of street date. When we get good reviews (which we usually do, thank goodness), I get to ride the vicarious high. Plus I get to go to conferences and teach good writers new tricks and influence cover art and do all sorts of really cool bookgeek stuff. My job rocks.
But most people don't really understand what exactly a managing editor does. I still do acquisitions which is good and bad for my writers -- good because I have approving authority, so my authors have one less hurdle to clear on the path to publication; bad because my attention is frequently pulled toward management issues*** and away from their manuscripts. My turnaround could use some improvement, but at 2-3 months on a requested full, I'm still several clicks faster than most in my profession.
So what does a managing editor do? My job, in a nutshell, is to carry out the publisher's vision. That may sound overly simplistic, but the bottom line ties into a point Alicia was trying to make in her last post: my loyalty is, should be, and will remain with the publisher for as long as I hold this job. Alicia and I may have been friends since god wore diapers, but we each understand our professional roles and know that it's not personal if something comes up that smells like a problem. We just fix it and move on, and that's the way it should be.
And as to my authors, I like my authors. Some of them are people that I would be proud to call friends even if we didn't have this professional relationship. But as much as I like them and their books, my first task in every interaction with them must be carrying out the publisher's vision. And this is exactly as it should be.
Do I think it's possible for editors and authors to be friends? Yes, given the right circumstances. Do I think it's wise? Now, that's an altogether different question. If everyone if flourishing -- if the author's titles are selling well, and there aren't any conflicts of interest percolating -- then you're probably on safer ground. But when the author's goals and the publisher's goals diverge, even if only slightly, then the friendship might actually be a liability.
A real easy example of this is copyedits. The goal of copyedits is twofold: to eliminate errors, but also to bring a manuscript into conformity with house standards. The publisher's goal is to distribute a product of consistently high quality that fits its brand image. This can sometimes mean a lot of "airbrushing" -- cosmetic changes during line edits and copy edits that don't alter the book's bigger picture but might feel invasive if you're the author.
And the editor, the poor half-blind editor who works for love more than for money, ends up caught in the crossfire between the author's original text and the house standards. The author says, how could you do this to me! And the publisher says, you know the rules.
I read Alicia's post on editor/author friendliness as a cautionary tale. Be friendly, by all means, but always be clear on where everyone's loyalties lie. You'll have a longer, happier career if you do, and your publisher, editor -- and yes, your managing editor, too! -- will thank you for it.
*** Management issues, a random sampling: approving cover art, editing and in some cases writing PR material, managing the hiring process, conducting training, setting production schedules, setting editorial calendars, harassing people about deadlines, chasing down things that have gone astray, tracking every manuscript's progress so that I can give instant answers on a moment's notice to "what's happening with--" questions, answering author questions on every topic their fertile imaginations might devise, setting and disseminating submissions guidelines, mediating disputes between authors/authors and authors/editors and authors/production staff, reviewing ads and ad campaign strategies -- the list goes on, but maybe you begin to get the point. It's a whole lot of stuff that has little to do with the words on the pages.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
So, without further ado, here is part 1 of "An Editor Is Not...."
An editor is not your friend.
That means you should expect a polite rejection but not an apology if she chooses not to accept your submission. That also means she isn't going to send you flowers when she acquires your submission. (Your real friends, however, should take you out and give you champagne. :)
That means that even if you had a drink together at some conference, she might not remember you or give you a special reading when you submit.
That means she doesn't have to speak at your chapter meeting or judge your chapter's contest, and if she does, you should be fulsome in your gratitude (editors usually are doing that on their own time).
This means you do not need to-- indeed, you should not-- give her/him a gift for Christmas or send her a card on her birthday.
That means also that you should not expect loyalty from an editor. The editor owes you one thing-- an effective edit of any assigned/acquired manuscript. She is not bound to buy your next submission, or remember your birthday, or put up with your bad moods, or forgive your intemperate phone calls.
That also means you shouldn't risk your career out of some loyalty to her. If your editor leaves the publisher, you can of course go with her (if she offers a good contract :), but whatever you do, it should be because it's good for your career. You should not identify so much with her that you jeopardize your own future sales to this house, or argue with her former superior, or condescend to her replacement. It might be true that she was badly treated by this publisher, or maybe not-- and maybe you want to factor that into your career planning. (When several editors are laid off at once, for example, that's often a sign that a line will be cancelled, and that's a good time to pay attention and make a new plan.) But don't burn your bridges-- no matter how fond you were of this editor, it's not your battle. (Also, don't mix metaphors. :)
After your editor leaves is often a rather hazardous time. You should be assigned to a new editor, and if you make it clear that you prefer the old editor, don't be surprised if you are re-assigned yet again, to someone else, and then to no one. This is really a time to lie low, to make deadlines, to be polite and businesslike, and to do some subtle probing to find out what sort of submissions your new editor prefers. NOT a good idea to sniff, "My old sainted editor always loved my stuff!" You might hear, "Precisely why she was asked to leave," and that is something we never want to hear. :)
That also means that your editor is not likely to go the extra mile for you. The moment her loyalty is for you and against her employer, you really ought to start worrying, because she's not doing you any favors that way. SHE is not the one who is going to pay you or get your book into the stores. She shouldn't be pitting you against your own publisher... and if she does, she is not only not your friend, but not a good editor either.
That's not to say she should try to screw you out of what's due you... but she isn't your agent either. Your agent is the one who should argue for a bigger advance or better cover. (Or you should do that, if you don't have an agent.) You should never expect your editor to risk her job to protect you or help you.
So don't mix the personal with the professional. Friends you do business with so often become enemies. Publishing is a small world, and you don't need any enemies. Be friendly with everyone you work with, but friends with none.
Jared gave his wife a quick kiss, then took one last look at the woman he loved.
Now of course I was thinking how bold that guy was, envisioning him kissing his wife and looking over her shoulder at his girlfriend. But in fact, he's much more boring than that-- his wife and the woman he loves are one and the same. There's something called a "pronoun," I want to tell him, which replaces a noun you don't want to repeat so we understand it means that noun:
Jared gave his wife a quick kiss, then took one last look at her.
Or... then gave her one last look....
Or... Jared gave his beloved wife a quick kiss and a final glance.
Here's another, same book, not so funny--
"How long have you lived in the city?" she added, trying to get more information.
Well, yeah, asking a question (that's what the question mark means) is trying to get more information. Now if she was trying to get DIFFERENT information than the question, like she was actually trying to ascertain if he'd embezzled from his last employer, I can see adding something in her mind that showed that the dialogue isn't transparent... but she actually is just asking how long he's lived in the city.
There's no reason to echo in the quote tag what the dialogue has said straight out. (Tagging a question with "she asked" is so conventional it's okay for most of us, but "she asked, wanting to know how long," is too redundant for me.)
Quote tags with introspection are VERY useful when you want a contrast between what she said and what she meant-- when the dialogue isn't transparent.
"How long have you lived in the city?" she asked, just to lull him.
"How long have you lived in the city?" she asked, pulling out a knife and laying it on the desk.
"How long have you lived in the city?" she asked, her gaze on the lie detector monitor.
This is something to watch for in revision-- redundancy and doubling up. There are uses for this, certainly, but it's to alert the reader to a NON-doubling, that the two things are not actually the same even if they sort of seem that way. If they -are- the same (wife/beloved, question/intent), don't signal they aren't with redundancy.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
LOL, Theresa. I remember a friend of mine was sending out employment requests, and he read me his cover page, and it was excruciating, all about how so many bad things had happened to him recently and he didn't think he could take another rejection, so please hire him.
I just cringed. No surprise-- he didn't even get an interview request.
Personnel directors and editors are not therapists. And they aren't likely to be swayed (much) by a sob story. Professionalism will go much further. :)
In today's slush submissions:
- one single-spaced partial with no synopsis and no indication of the length of the finished manuscript,
- one really well-written partial with no contact information,
- two stories that are so far outside our submissions guidelines that the writers couldn't possibly have read our submissions guidelines
- one submission with a query letter detailing how long the writer has dreamed of being published and all the mean people who told her she would never succeed
- one submission with an offensive query letter explaining why the author doesn't read in our genre
The good news is that I requested fulls on four manuscripts today. I'm a little leery on two of them but want to take a look just the same.
There's another kind of sentence which can produce a similar effect without turning ideas in an about-face. Any sentence which contains action describing a change in circumstances -- dynamic change -- will also be very interesting to readers.
Let's start with an example.
At the intersection, the light was red.
At the intersection, the light turned red.
These sentences describe the exact same concept, a red light at an intersection. They are identical but for one word. We can probably all agree that the second sentence is the stronger of the two, but why should that be true?
I can't pretend to understand the medical science behind this, but our eyes and our brains are hardwired to be alert to change. It's physiological, and probably a survival mechanism, but whatever the scientific reasons, it's certain that our eyes and our brains work together to sense change.
This sensed change can be movement, as the blur of motion in your peripheral vision that triggers you to hit the brakes and swerve to avoid an accident.
This sensed change can be static, as when you enter a room and know that something has been moved from its rightful place, even if you can't immediately see what's different.
This sensed change can also be fictional, as when your eyes scan a page and your brain interprets the words to create a story picture in your imagination.
Eyes and brains working together to identify change. They're always alert for change.
So when we write
At the intersection, the light turned red.
what we're really doing is tapping into that almost primal alertness. The eyes are saying, "Yo! Brain! It was yellow, but now it's red! React if you need to!"
And the brain says, "Red light! Change! What do we need to do about this? Hey eyes, give us some more visual clues."
In other words, it's a motivation to keep reading.
Smart writers leverage this all over the place -- scene action and dialogue, of course, have dynamic elements built in -- but it's also useful in opening scenes and in description.
As to his face, whose rapid changes of expression bespoke him of a southern race, there were in it both tact and power of character. His eye, which could express every feeling, seemed to read the soul of any one on whom it rested. His complexion, naturally dark, had been rendered darker by exposure to a warmer sun than ours.
- Alexandre Dumas, Memoirs of a Physician
Dumas could have said, "He was tactful and powerful, observant, and suntanned." But instead he delivered those descriptive elements in the context of change -- changes of expression, eyes which express every feeling, skin that becomes darker. There's a feeling of movement and change in all of this.
I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.
- Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
The narrator's age changes, then changes back, wavering between two numbers, a much more dynamic way to give a character's age than the simple, "I am ninety." Worth noting: even though age itself is static, this description works on the same principle of dynamic change because the reader's eyes are still perceiving a change and communicating it to the brain. Age is not a thing in motion, but the change element makes it dynamic.
This was said very hesitantly, as if it were criticism she was afraid to make. It's been rolling around between my ears ever since. I don't understand the underlying message. Is it about credibility, popularity, entertainment? Since when is snark a goal to be achieved?
Don't get me wrong. I read some of the snark sites and find them amusing and informative. I've been known to email snark links to friends, and I've pushed our advertising planners to look into ad space on some of those sites.
Alicia and I are both sort of practical, even-tempered people. Our temperaments are very similar, though there are minor differences -- I'm probably a bit more patient, and she's certainly more charming. We both like teaching and believe in the importance of service to others. We can and do get wickedly sarcastic about this crazy business -- innocent bystanders have been known to develop shell-shocked expressions when exposed to the two of us on a roll -- but that's not really what we wanted for this blog. We see this as a vehicle for technical information. An opportunity to teach. A place to indulge the illusion that all writers could be brilliant if they would just listen to us. (You're all going to advance that illusion by being brilliant writers, yes?)
So no, we're not very snarky, but that's okay. There's room for all of us, snarkers and teachers alike.
Love Is Murder
As long as we're on miscellaneous matters unrelated to the nuts and bolts of writing, I thought I'd mention that I'll be at the Love Is Murder conference in Chicago next weekend. If any of you are going to be there, be sure to say hello.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
I doubt any of our readers are ignorant of these rules, but heck, maybe some day we can put these all together and sell the list as "The Secret!"
1. Double space the manuscript. Indent paragraphs. Do not extra-space between them.
2. Number your pages. The number usually goes in a header in the top right corner with your last name... Rasley/221
3. Put your contact info (name, address, phone, email) on a title page and also at the top of the first page of the manuscript.
Here's the link to my book-- and remember, those who can, write... those who can't, edit.
We have just gone through this issue of indicating the protag's last name in the opening sentence and decided not to, but instead to include in the reply by the person they are addressing. Rationale: in deep POV, we don't think of ourselves with our last name. First maybe, but not last.
here is our sample:
‘Michael’s gone!’ Julia screamed into the payphone.
‘Calm down, Mrs Stewart. She’ll be with you shortly.’
Deep POV can be a great tool for getting into the character's experience—but it's not right for every author, every book, or even every moment in a book that does utilize deep POV. It's a tool, not a rule, and I'd say it's best for certain types of moments in certain types of books (written by certain types of authors).
The point of deep POV is not to convey information or guide a reader through a plot, but rather to give the reader an interior experience of a character's perception and personality. True deep POV is pretty close to stream-of-consciousness, which can be notoriously difficult to read. In fact, deep POV can result in really cryptic narration-- try figuring out what's happening in some of the Leopold passages in Joyce's Ulysses. The reader has to relinquish any need to understand, in fact, and just give into the experience. That's great when you're probing the psychology of a character, not so great when you're trying to set up a scene so the reader can figure out what's going on.
I think experimentation can help with this—always keeping in mind giving the reader the best experience. So I don't think that necessarily means deep POV all the time, in every line. =POV= doesn't necessarily mean it's always deep; in fact, a lot of skillful writers travel up and down the POV ladder depending on the needs of the scene at that moment. POV has a lot of variations, and it's often hard to determine what's right for any given passage. And that's going to vary a lot, which is why (in my humble opinion), it's best not to commit to one approach ahead of time unless you write the same sort of book all the time and are comfortable that your one approach is right for this type of book.
So what type of book works well in deep POV? Character-oriented, character-journey books, about people with interesting psychology, and particularly interesting perspectives on what's happening. But in many books, deep POV can get claustrophobic and uninformative. Again, what's the effect you intend to have on the reader? In a mystery, a primarily intellectual experience, deep POV probably won't work as an approach to the entire book (though in the passages of the sleuth perceiving the murder scene or working through the problem, it could be very interesting—getting an idea of what this character sees and how she thinks). In a suspense novel, where the overall purpose is to get the reader to feel suspense and dread and fear along with the character, deep POV in much of the book can be helpful.
What I see a lot of is scenes opening in a "shallower" POV, so that basic facts can get established (where we are, when we are, who we are), and then at moments of high emotion or action, the POV gets deeper and we get more of this person's particular experience.
Narratives are constructs, and the reader is likely to accept or even expect some of the narrative conventions like scene settings and last names at the beginning of a book or scene. So I wouldn't automatically commit to "deep POV" for every passage in every book. It's not necessarily more "right" than another POV approach, though I think it's probably more right in certain situations. Is this one of those situations? That's the author's job—figuring that out—and different authors will have different answers.
‘Michael’s gone!’ Julia screamed into the payphone.
‘Calm down, Mrs Stewart. She’ll be with you shortly.’
So… well, if you don't mind, let's deconstruct the opening above. Let's say you have decided to go with deep POV here, because you want to give the reader the deeper interior experience. So who is your POV character? That of course is essential. I think it's Julia.
Let me say this—I don't think a deep POV passage should open with dialogue. Why? Because the point of deep POV is to give the interior experience. Dialogue is exterior—anyone standing in the room (or on the other end of the phone) can narrate that. Only Julia can tell what's happening inside her. So I'd say, if this is a deep POV passage, start inside her, not outside her.
For example (I'm just making up the situation—I'm sure it's not your story. :):
It kept playing in Julia's head. Michael's gone. Michael's gone. Michael's gone gone gone gone Michael's—the words all running together till they didn't make sense. But then, none of this made sense, the open door, the winter sun pallidly streaming in, the winter breeze blowing in, Michael's mittens on the porch, his little footprints in the snow, obedient little footprints, leading down the driveway till they met up with tire tracks and disappeared.
She found a phone in her hand and blindly, automatically, punched in 911. Just as the dispatcher answered, the words came out, and they still didn't make any sense. "Michael's gone!" she heard herself screaming.
If you do that, then we're not wondering, "Who is Julia?" We'll know that WE are Julia, that we are inside her. Julia doesn't narrate "straight"; she narrates as she perceives, and in a moment of panic, she's perceiving in glimpses and flashes.
As for names, I've seen deep POV scenes where the character never uses her own name—just refers to herself with the pronoun (she). This is one reason deep POV can be useful in villain passages, because you can plausibly go through pages and never use the POV character's name. (If you want to keep the gender hidden, consider first-person – I—for those passages. It's a bit of a bump when most of the book is in third-person, but that variation is becoming fairly common in suspense novels.)
Complex stuff!! :)Alicia
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Here's my scenario:
Let's start with an easily adaptable plot. Sarah, a young woman, goes to the funeral home to deal with the necessities of burying her Uncle Wally. She realizes somehow he was actually murdered, though everyone has assumed the cause of death was natural or an accident.
So here are some commenters' takes on that. I'm just going to use the first line or two of each to show how even from Line 1 you can get the reader's anticipation up.
This is Keri's:
Sarah Smith gasped and turned around after walking in Uncle Wally’s house and finding him face-down on the floor with a knife in his back.
I "diagnosed" this as romantic suspense, but it could just be suspense (no romance) or it could be a fairly standard mystery. Why suspense? Because Sarah is the one who discovers the body, and it happens very early. A mystery might have the "sleuth" discover the body, but that tends to happens -after- a set up of the setting and situation-- several pages, maybe even several chapters (the English mystery often puts the murder in Chapter 3 or so) in.
Also notice that Sarah is closely related (niece) to the victim, which again is more of a feature of the suspense novel. Suspense, as its title implies, is meant to be a more emotional experience, while mysteries are more intellectual... so the more emotional experience of the close relative being killed is "suspense-y".
I would also point out that naming a character early conveys personal importance on her. That is, naming Sarah Smith in the first line suggests that she's going to be the sleuth.
NOT naming her until later would indicate to the reader than she is not going to be the main character-- maybe she'll be the victim, or maybe the murderer, or maybe a secondary character... but if she's not named on first reference, that's usually a sign of secondariness.
If the character is named by her -role- (The waitress fiddled with the spoons), that sends a signal that the role is the only important thing about her.
Now obviously, you can play with expectation here... but you should probably know what the expectation is. When you are a reader, for example, you might find a bunch of names in the first couple paragraphs confusing because you're subconsciously searching for the protagonist-- the one you're supposed to identify with. So when you re-don your writing hat, don't forget the experience of the reader. Don't feel like you have to name the doctor and the cop and the neighbor, especially if they're never going to appear again.
So Keri using Sarah's name and Uncle Wally's (AS Uncle Wally, not as Wally Magnuson-- that is, identifying him from her perspective) tells us that these two will be important... but that Sarah (both names, plus of course we're in her point of view) is the main character.
One little editing note-- if I were editing this, I'd point out that you have reaction (her gasp) before the cause (seeing Wally dead) in the sentence. How can you rewrite that so that you get a more logical sequence but still have the "surprise" of the murder at the end of the sentence?
We think chronologically, or at least, when we assemble our thoughts in a logical way, the order we use for time sequence is usually chronological-- first this happened, and then that. So a reader is going to be just a bit stopped there because the sequence in the sentence defies the chronology. It's not a big problem, but you want the first sentence to be perfect-- because readers can so easily put a book down at that point, as they've got no investment at this point. Don't give them a reason.
Also notice that the focus on action rather than perception (her gasping then telling us what she's seeing) is presenting this from the outside, from the camera eye. The great advantage books have over movies is that books can be INSIDE the character, while even the most deft camera operator has to remain OUTSIDE. Telling the action rather than letting the reader FEEL the experience of being Sarah is a point of view choice-- you're choosing "objective POV" rather than the more personal, interior "deep-third-person". That is not unusual in the first paragraph of a book, but it tends to put it more in the "thriller" genre than either suspense (which is all about the reader sharing the character's experience) or mystery (which is about the reader sharing the sleuth's thoughts). So if you want this to be about Sarah as a potential victim (suspense) or the sleuth (mystery), I'd suggest a closer point of view from the very beginning.
So you could fix both of these problems by going inside her and narrating her experience rather than just her action. Start with some emotion or thought word that places us squarely in her POV, then narrate from the inside, like--
Sarah Smith wanted to turn around and walk away without knocking. She didn't want to meet her Uncle Wally. She had enough troublesome relatives already. But she reminded herself that family was family, and knocked.
The door wasn't locked. It wasn't even latched. Just her knock was enough to make it swing open. Sarah was confronted with Uncle Wally's front hallway-- and there, framed in the sunlight from the open door, was Uncle Wally, face-down on the floor with a knife in his back.
Much longer, notice-- deep POV is always (almost) longer than objective. But notice that it's her experience from the inside, so from the beginning, the reader experiences HER in real time.
Must run-- more later.
Friday, January 18, 2008
I wonder how much this is used in commercial contemporary fiction. All of the examples are classic. I'm wracking my brains to think of a current example.
Patricia, I suspect what's throwing you is that the examples I cited used reversals to set out thematic elements. In commercial fiction (which tends to rely less on theme), this kind of sentence is more likely to be used in other ways, usually but not always to set scenes or describe characters. Also, in contemporary writing, we tend to use reversals as accents within a sentence rather than as the meat of the sentence -- but this is not universal. It's just a tendency.
In the previous post, I used those examples because the reversals are so obvious that it makes the concept very clear. Sometimes reversals are a little less blatant, though.
Just using the books within reach of my desk, these are some sentences I find in openings:
They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed anyone by magic -- nor ever done any one the slightest good.
~ third sentence, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (doing harm ---> doing good, used to introduce characters)
[Imagine a] place of white sparkling mountains and black forests and one high, ancient castle.
~ second sentence, The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe (white ---> black, used to set the scene)
The cabin was silent except for the chattering of a squirrel on the roof.
~ second paragraph, Natural Selection by Liz Wolfe (silent --->chattering, used to set the scene)
Trouble was, the bride wasn't Jeannette Rose Brantford. The bride was Jeannette's identical twin sister, Janette Violet Brantford....
~ sixth and seventh sentences, The Husband Trap by Tracy Anne Warren (Rose--->Violet, used to set the premise and describe the characters) (Worth noting: twins switching places is a reversal used as a plot element.)
Example one is genfic. Two is paranormal romance. Three is a mystery. Four is historical romance. The oldest of these titles has a 2004 copyright date.
We're going to explore this idea a bit further, but I want to make sure first that everyone is on the same page. (Haha, punny -- that page would be the first, yes?) (Ah, nothing like wordgeek humor on a Friday afternoon.) (I'll shut up now.)
Thursday, January 17, 2008
If you shrink this concept down to the sentence level by incorporating disparate or oppositional elements, you'll create instant tension. "Tension" in this case doesn't refer to stress or the kind of mood you endure when you want to slap someone but must smile instead. Instead, we're using the term to describe the intrigued but unsettled feeling that enhances the reading experience. Tension engages the reader.
You might be used to thinking of this concept as "raising story questions," but I think that's an only partly accurate way to describe the effect on the reader. Yes, the prose might very well raise story questions when it uses this kind of tension. But how often do you, as a reader, pause to articulate those questions? Probably, instead, you enter the mood of the sentence and keep reading. You become engaged, but you don't break the flow to figure out why.
Think of Dickens, who executed sentence level reversals all over the place. Who can forget the classic beginning to A Tale of Two Cities?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
The reversal in that sentence is obvious. Best ---> worst. Do you, as a reader, literally stop to formulate a question after reading this? The question might be too obvious to make us pause. How can a time be both best and worst? We read on for an explanation.
Dickens ended A Tale of Two Cities with a similar tension statement:
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
The change here is Doing ---> Resting. He doesn't use this technique to raise story questions. The story is over at this point. Instead, he uses it because it's just darn good writing. He wants to keep the reader engaged in the text right to the last words, and he uses this sentence-level reversal to accomplish that.
Once you are aware of this sentence technique, you'll start to see it everywhere.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
--- Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (single ---> married, or at least wanting to get married)
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
--- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (happy ---> unhappy, but also alike ---> unique)
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
--- David Copperfield, Charles Dickens (hero ---> supporting role)
Look around you. Flip through some of your favorite stories. Do you see any reversals in sentences? Look in openings in particular, because clever writers tend to rely on this kind of tension to engage the readers very quickly.
Which is why we're talking about this technique now. We're looking at openings, at everything that precedes the inciting incident, and this is one technique guaranteed to drive the reader forward into the meat of your story.
Does anyone have any examples to share?
Hers is here:
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
From what I gather, they'll use comments to further narrow the field.
ETA: Reader Ian Thomas Healy is also a semi-finalist. His entry is here:
Everyone, go read and comment! Help out your fellow writers!
Anyone else out there make the cut?
Yes, they were. heheheheheh
I have to throw this similar but more adult example into the mix. Alicia, I'll see your omniscient narrative warning and raise you one first-person transmogrified demon:
Burn this book.
Go on. quickly, while there's still time. Burn it. Don't look at another word. Did you hear me? Not. One. More. Word.
Why are you waiting? It's not that difficult. Just stop reading and burn the book. It's for your own good, believe me. No, I can't explain why. We don't have time for explanations. Every syllable that you let your eyes wander over gets you into more and more trouble. And when I say trouble, I mean things so terrifying your sanity won't hold once you see them, feel them. You'll go mad. Become a living blank, all that you ever were wiped away, because you wouldn't do one simple thing. Burn this book.
It doesn't matter if you spent your last dollar buying it. No, and it doesn't matter if it was a gift from somebody you love. Believe me, friend, you should set fire to this book right now, or you'll regret the consequences.
That's the opening from Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker. Barker has been writing kid lit for the last few years, and I think this opening shows it in the way he echoes Lemony Snicket. The book shows it in other ways, too -- much as I love Barker's writing, he was off his adult game here. The plot was underdeveloped, stripped down like the plot of a children's book. The premise was hammered into the reader until I wanted to beg the narrative to move on, already. I'm generally a huge fan of Barker's novels, but this one didn't satisfy. Yet I can't help thinking my middle grade and early teen nephews would love it.
But look at that opening -- again, as with the Sherry Thomas opening, we're not in scene. No dialogue, no action. The first person narrator is directly addressing the reader, which is unusual and intimate in all the right ways. The promise of the opening is explicit: reading this book will horrify you and change you.
I also love the way he plays with the notion of book burning. Who burns books? Crazed mobs led by wackos with no respect for ideas. Who refuses to burn books? Rational, intellectually-oriented people who are occasionally passionate about the First Amendment. In other words, readers. Asking readers to burn a book doesn't merely toy with their expectations of story and character, but it challenges, on some level, their self-concepts. This is the kind of subtle engagement that will make a reader turn the page.
It also introduces a major motif, fire, in a very direct way. The plea for fire is repeated (a few too many times) over the course of the book, but the reader's understanding of this request changes as the plot advances. By the end, we understand that it wouldn't just be a book we're burning, but the altered corpus of a demon who no longer has fingers to flick the match himself. It's a neat trick to have the request remain constant and the reader's understanding of the request evolve.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
The opening of your story should promise what you want to promise. And that is going to depend a whole lot on what the story IS.
A comedy, for example, might (or might not... depending) use a deceptively bright opening-- the sunny beach with nice sunbathers everywhere-- to set up a comically disastrous afternoon; that is, relying on surprise to startle laughter out of the readers. Paradoxically, a tragedy might start with a happy scene, again to set up the contrast between what is to come.
It all depends. :) But you are dealing with reader expectation, and you should think about what that is and how you'll use it. Snicket is dealing with a child reader's expectation that stories usually have happy endings. That exists BEFORE the child picks up the book, so Snicket plays with it.
Another author, however, might know that children expect that happy ending, and go in the opposite direction, using that expectation to lull the reader into a state of relaxation. I've always found the opening of Little Women paradoxically terrifying (in retrospect), because it shows the Ordinary World of the four girls to be, despite their poverty, a place of family love and security. I remember very clearly how unprepared I was for what happened later in the book (you know—I still can't deal with it openly— B d-ing). Of course, now I see that I was being set up for the most painful of crashes because that first scene makes the promise, "If you have love, you will be happy." Ha! As if! Those sisters loved each other and their mother and father and see what that horrible cruel author did to them! (You can tell, I'm not yet over this. :)
Most of the time, however, there's a silent conspiracy between author and reader. The opening events promise a sort of book, and that's what the reader gets. However, as I said, it's a silent conspiracy. It's not as obvious as Snicket's opening paragraph. You generally aren't going to get a first scene that says, "This is a thriller. That means you can expect chills and thrills, and also don't be surprised if I reveal the identity of the villain very early, and don't waste a lot of brain cells trying to find the REAL villain, because he IS the real villain, you dolt. This is a thriller—an emotional experience—not a mystery—an intellectual experience. So settle down, turn off the higher brain, and prepare to be scared, okay?"
No, the author doesn't say it outfront like that; rather the first scene usually prepares the reader for this type of book, and the reader knows what to expect and so isn't disappointed when that's what happens in the book.
Let's take an example. Now I should make clear that the same basic plot can be done in different ways to produce different genres or types of stories. A murder can be the initiating event in the external plot for almost any type of story, not just a mystery or thriller. I just had someone email me and ask if a murder can be the start of a relationship story, where a mother and daughter reconcile. Sure. A murder can be a central or initiating event in a relationship story, a romance, a romantic suspense, a horror story, a comedy, a thriller, a suspense novel (which is different from a romantic suspense), a mystery, a legal thriller, a medical thriller, a family saga, a s/f novel, a psychological drama… really almost anything. Murder is the sort of big culturally significant event that will always get our attention.
But… each type of book is likely to have an opening consonant with its purpose (to horrify, thrill, bring a couple together, explore psychology, etc.). You know as a reader what an opening means. Haven't you ever been in a certain mood and wanted a certain type of book? I was recently undergoing a stressful time—just too much work, the usual—and I didn't want to read anything agitating, so I wouldn't get past page 10 in a book that opened like a thriller would. I still love murder mysteries, however, no matter what mood I'm in, so I wasn't about to dispense with the whole dead body thing. But I found myself reading—somewhat compulsively—the Brother Cadfael mysteries (which are beautifully written and realized, and I highly recommend). These start out, almost always, with a scene of order or routine or camaraderie in the Ordinary World (Cadfael's monastery). Then—and only then—the order would be disrupted by a death, but never of anyone we really cared about (not like that evil Little Women, grumble). And then Cadfael would out the murderer and order would be restored.
My point is… I could read the first scene and know what I was going to get, and if I were in the right mood for this type of book, I'd continue reading. Because I am, of course, a savvy, sophisticated reader, I can sense from the emphasis of the first scene what the book was going to be, and so I'm primed to get what I expect. This is kind of like the publisher putting the genre or sub-genre on the spine of the book, or the bookseller shelving it in a certain area. If you are in the "horror" section of the bookstore, well, you expect horror in those books, right?
But… something I've noticed in submissions is how often that opening scene is a mismatch with what the story is supposed to be. I edit erotic romance, and while I certainly don't expect explicit sex in that first chapter, I do expect a heightened presentation of the sensual realm in some way. I also expect, even if the romantic couple don't meet early, that there is the opportunity for or intimation of romance-to-come, and that might be as simple as the heroine being presented as "alone" in the first scene. (Just as with the Snicket excerpt above, the "aloneness" suggests its negation—the Baudelaire children presumably have been separated from their parents, and the solitary heroine is ready, if not willing, to be joined by someone else.) A submission that starts with, say, a young couple proudly showing off their new home, or an army grimly vanquishing the enemy, doesn't "feel" like romance to me, and it's not going to "feel" like a romance to my house's customers.
Okay, so let's get some examples. Let's start with an easily adaptable plot. Sarah, a young woman, goes to the funeral home to deal with the necessities of burying her Uncle Wally. She realizes somehow he was actually murdered, though everyone has assumed the cause of death was natural or an accident.
Now, assume that this really is adaptable and we can add or change to this basic plot. (Like maybe in the end she's going to solve the murder, or maybe she's going to marry the cop who helps her solve the murder, or maybe she's going to get murdered herself—whatever you want.) BUT… you have decided that this is going to be a certain genre or type of book. What I'm suggesting is that even given a similar set of plot events, different genres will produce different openings.
So let's look at a few possibilities, then maybe get more subtle.
Maybe you're an avid reader of Miss Marple novels and you want this to be a cozy mystery. What would you start with? I'd say… first, Sarah can't have been that close to Uncle Wally, because cozy mysteries are cozy precisely because there's not a lot of horror and sorrow associated with the death, hence the victim is usually not important emotionally to the sleuth. So… if we want it to be clearly a cozy, we might start with a scene that emphasizes Sarah's distance from the victim. She could get a call from a hospital saying that her Uncle Wally has her listed as next of kin, and she needs to come deal with his body, and she could say, "Who is Uncle Wally?" and only later figure out that he's her late father's longlost brother. Or if you wanted to start closer to the mystery (the discovery that he was in fact murdered), you could have her arriving at the funeral home and explaining to the director that no, she doesn't have a photo of him for the funeral program because she only just found out he existed. See how that sets up the "coziness"—which emphasizes the intellectual aspect of the mystery by showing the distance between the sleuth and victim, but also establishes a psychological need on the sleuth's part to solve this (because she's "next of kin").
Now imagine another author-scenario -- you're up for tenure at a university and your stuffy colleagues will be most impressed with a literary psychological novel (which just happens to have a murder in it… hey, it worked for Umberto Eco!). How would you start this book in a "literary/psychological" way that will make your tenure committee think you haven't been dilettantishly reading Agatha Christie novels in your library carrel? What sort of opening will promise a literary or psychological read?
Some other opportunities: Maybe you really are interested in exploring possibilities of, I don't know, how societies in the future will deal with dead bodies (so the funeral home is actually going to shoot the coffin off the space ship into space). What would you do in that first scene to present this as a science fiction novel that just happens to have a murder in it?
What about the subtle gradations of the other standard "crime novel" sub-genres? How would this plot be started in a thriller novel?
In a legal thriller?
In a medical thriller?
In a suspense novel?
In a romantic suspense novel?
In a private-eye novel?
In a police procedural?
In a mystery (not cozy) novel?
And let's transport this to other genres:
How would you start this in a science fiction novel?
In a romance novel?
In an erotica novel?
In a horror novel?
In a western?
In a comedy?
Your turn! Pick one or more of those options and sketch out an opening that previews that sort of book. Post that in the comments section, and we'll use some as examples. :)