Can someone tell me what’s going on with me, myself, and my life? The chaos has been piling up — that slow python-like coiling that you don’t notice until, well, you suddenly do. This morning I had to laugh when I took stock of my nightstand situation. How did that happen? And this tells you what a lousy housekeeper I am, too, vacuuming around the piles without thought. At least I’ve been reading, right? And reading does the fiction-writing brain good, right?
I’ve been meaning to analyze first sentences for awhile now. I don’t know why except that I still hear annoying writers-conference voices in my head telling me that I’ve got to hook the reader with a wowza first sentence.
But, let’s think about this. By “reader” most instructors really mean agents and editors. In the real world, do you depend on a novel’s first sentence to entice you into it? Or the flap copy? I go by flap copy if I don’t know the author’s work.
To start, here are the first sentences from my four unsung novels — please note, in various states of draftiness(!).
When the doorbell rings, I duck under windows that are oiled for easy escape.
Later, Marcus Tully will overhear snippets of conversation about Liam the Matchmaker’s birthday party, not to mention rumors about a most shocking death.
Circling around the Marin Headlands from Bodega Bay and Stinson Beach, hills smelling of anise and sunburned grass undulate in a slow descent toward a favorite pot-smoking spot called the Bunkers.
On a Tuesday afternoon, mid-September, locals marked the day fog followed Gray Man down a rural lane near Lisfenora village.
Now, here are ten first sentences off my bookshelf. I chose mainstream novels at random, some mysteries, some not.
Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook.
–Prologue, Water for Elephants, Sarah Gruen
Last week I found a letter from you.
–Prologue, The Various Haunts of Men, Susan Hill
The lake in my dreams is always frozen.
–Prologue, The Lake of dead Languages, Carol Goodman
I spot her as soon as I get off the elevator on the fourth floor.
–Chapter 1, Origin, Diana Abu-Jaber
A sealed envelope is an enigma containing further enigmas.
–Chapter 1, The Flanders Panel, Arturo Perez-Reverte
It was November.
–Chapter 1, The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
This story begins in a city of bones.
–Prologue, Sepulchre, Kate Mosse
Terry Hewitt had never been as afraid as he was now.
–Chapter 1, Slip of the Knife, Denise Mina
Later, when it was over, he cast his thoughts back to that sunstruck May day in Cambridge–where it had all begun–and asked himself whether he would have done anything differently, knowing what he now did.
–Prologue, The Savage Garden, Mark Mills
If Ignaz Stapel hadn’t been so afraid of his father, he would have reported the incident and perhaps saved the lives of all the people who were to die as a consequence of it.
–Prologue, City of Shadows, Ariana Franklin
As an afternote, from one gynormous commercial blockbuster:
Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the valuted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.
–Prologue, The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown
(Don’t hate me because this is on my shelf!)
And from one Pulitzer Prize winner:
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.
–Chapter 1, The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Do I come to any conclusions? Not really except that I need to work on mine some more. Some came within prologues, some not. First person, third, and omniscient.
Some of the first sentences are surprisingly simple — that’s the big thing I take note of for my writing. All in all, most of them give intriguing hints of mysteries/conflicts come, don’t they? On the other hand, seems to me that in the world of publishing novelists, anything goes for a first sentence.
Dan Brown’s is the least interesting to me even though, supposedly, as a commercial thriller , it ought to have the most wowza-hook of an opening. It lacks the finesse of the previously listed mysterioso beginnings.
What do you think? What are some of your first sentences?
I like the idea of writing a fun Friday post, possibly one that’s interactive, or maybe one that contains random stuff or a weekly round-up (which were Friday memes that went around at some point). I did this for awhile. Maybe I’ll do a Friday-something again for awhile (but probably only for awhile because I’m no good with routines).
I’ll call these my Free-For-All Fridays so as not to confuse them with other memes (not that this is a meme — but it can be, I suppose — anything goes).
Saw a meme on One Word, One Rung, One Day. Goes like this: What’s the closest book on hand — no thinking about it! If there are many, choose one at random. Turn to page 56 and cite two to five lines. Tag people if you want. Cool way to get to know my readers!
My book was sitting under a paper pile on my desk. I’d scribbled Irish-slang notes all over the inside covers. From Tana French’s The Likeness:
I was having a hard time breathing; the air felt too thick, almost solid. One of the flourescents was on the fritz and it gave the room a shimmery, epileptic look, something out of a fever dream. A couple of the big binders lined up on the filing cabinets still had my handwriting down the spines. Sam pulled up his chair to his desk and glanced at me with a faint furrow between his eyebrows, but he didn’t say anything, and I was grateful for that.
(Loitering at World Cup Coffee today.)
This morning my book group discussed Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I like my book group. We’re a feisty, fabulous fivesome, and we discuss our reading picks before veering into the usual usual. (Cosmetics — as in wearing them at all, pros, cons — was a hot topic for two minutes.)
I’m the only writer, so I approach the discussion from a different perspective than my friends. Just today, one of the fab-five commented, “I’m so glad you’re in the group; I like the book so much better now that we’ve discussed it!”
During our book chats, I’m reminded that we fictioneers read novels the way I imagine filmmakers watch movies — with detached analysis murmuring in the background.
Let’s take, for example, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, which got great reviews. Won’t go on my 2008 favorites list, yet I appreciated it. Craft-wise, I respected what Messud accomplished with her omniscient voice and unlikeable cast of characters. However, if I weren’t a writer, I would have given up on the book because, frankly, I didn’t enjoy the story. (The rest of the fab-five detested this novel.)
For me, enjoying a book and appreciating a book are separate acts. The appreciation comes from my inner-writer. So, for example, when one of the fab-five complained that she felt distanced from Messud’s characters, I responded from the appreciation space — pinpointing the omniscient voice as the likely culprit and explaining why I thought Messud’s novel couldn’t have been written in anything but omniscient voice. From the enjoyment space, I agreed with my friend: I could have cared less about the characters.
Never mind Memorial Day, for me, the summer season officially kicks off when I get wind of my first beach-read recommendation list. Yesterday I received my sunny signal from NPR’s “All Things Considered.” You can read more about the commentator’s summer picks here.
In proper sound-bite fashion, the commentator restricted her list to books about the beach. I was never a huge beach person myself — got that fair and freckly skin to worry about. So, here’s my non-beachy beach-read list. Just a start, mind you. Novels I happen to have on hand.
1. Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult
2. The Mercy Seller by Brenda Rickman Vantrease
3. The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman
4. The Gathering by Anne Enright
5. Careless in Red by Elizabeth George
6. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
I’m always looking for recommendations. What’s on your beach-read list?
No deep thoughts today, so I’ll get my schizophrenic groove on with an interview…
Mini-me: How you doing?
Me: Wow, great interviewing skills.
Mini-me: Just answer the question.
Me: It took me all day to write four pages, one tortured paragraph at a time, and I’m sick again to boot. My throat’s at it; my lungs are congested; I haven’t been sleeping well; I’m headachy and parched—
Mini-me (whispering in an aside to imagined audience): Get out the violins. (Louder:) Right then, tell me about the scene you wrote today.
Me: It was a lighter scene centered around two clerics and a parishioner who lets his dog defecate on church grounds.
Mini-me: Sounds plain silly to me; I trust you wrote this scene for a reason.
Me: Of course, what do you take me for? The dialogue hides a bigger point. In fact, in my previous posts about dialogue I could have discussed this — that dialogue is best when it functions on more than one level.
Mini-me: Enough with the dialogue blah-blah-blah already, yeesh. If I read between the lines correctly on this blog, you suffered a rough writing patch during the holiday season. The writing is flowing better now, I take it?
Me: Slower than I’d like, as usual, but steady. In fact, this week I broke 200 pages on my first draft. Woohoo! (Momentary break to get coughing under control.) For me, that’s a significant milestone — the halfway mark, the light at the end of the tunnel — you get the picture. I’m already looking forward to revisions. Now, THAT’s fun stuff.
Mini-me (sighing): You don’t get out much, do you?
Me: I’ll walk out right now if you don’t quit with the attitude.
Mini-me: Will not.
Me: Yeah, you’re right. Next question?
Mini-me: In a post earlier this month you mentioned your moratorium on reading novels until your first draft is complete. How’s that going?
Me: Okay, so I’m an addict. I fell off the wagon for about a week because I’d forgotten about my book group, the Sassy Lassies. We convened last Saturday to discuss Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (don’t ask). Long story short, while in the library to fetch the book, I had to peruse the Latest Arrivals shelves…and, well, you know. But I’m back to nonfiction again. However, I’ve decided that I was a little extreme; I’ll now be a weekend fiction warrior until the first draft is complete.
Mini-me: Good luck on that. Next up, I heard through the grapevine that you spoke to a writer buddy this week—
Me: Wow, news travels fast. J– said something interesting about her current project. Namely, that she realized that she was writing her novel with her agent in mind. Basically, J–‘s creativity went haywire because of thoughts such as: Will her agent like this novel? Will she still want to represent J–? And so on. Luckily, J– found a way to disentangle herself from these external considerations. She’s since restarted the novel and likes this version much better. Our conversation stuck in my head — as you well know — because it was a vicarious learning lesson for me.
Mini-me: And, last but not least, do you have a favorite quote these days?
Me: Funny you should ask, because I do.
“The secret of happiness is freedom;
the secret of freedom, courage.”
I’ve decided that 2008 is my year to shrink the ever-growing piles in half. To start with, I’ve pulled out ten books that I will read over the next few months. If worthy, I will then transfer these books to my bookshelf. These will be nonfiction rather than fiction.
Because I’m a compulsive novel reader. Reading is part of my job as a novelist (nice rationalization), but I bet I also inherited this tendency from my mom. In any case, I’ve noticed that obsessive novel-reading complicates my first-draft writing efforts. For one thing, my brain runs amuck with too many ideas anyhow; I can do without the possible influence of other writers’s prose stylings or cool plot points on my storytelling.
Also, I often ruin my sleep patterns by reading until two (or later) in the morning. This results in morning grogginess, distraction, grumpiness — not good for my creativity. I accomplish my best first-draft writing in the mornings so obviously I need a fix.
To this end I shall henceforth read nonfiction until I complete my first draft. Here’s my reading list, in no particular order:
* A PERFECT MESS, The Hidden Benefits of Disorder — How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place: I bought this yesterday as part of a New Year’s effort to be kinder to myself.
* ALMANAC OF WORLD HISTORY: I began reading this National Geographic book eons ago because I’m daft when it comes to history. Didn’t pay enough attention in school, I guess. Too bad I don’t remember what I previously read, but my bookmark shows that I got to “Colonizing New Worlds, 1455-1857.”
* THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary: Dictionary — a writer’s best friend. How could I not be interested in this tale?
* READING LIKE A WRITER, A Guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them: Self-evident. Also, the author, Francine Prose, is smart smart smart.
* THE GOLDEN RATIO, The Story of Phi, the World’s Most Astonishing Number: I must have inherited a pinch of geekiness from my genius dad’s side of the family…
* EUDORA, A WRITER’S LIFE: Pure curiosity about novelist Eudora Welty.
* IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY: Because the author, Bill Bryson, has a great reputation. And because I like a well-written travel book. And because I’m a wanderer at heart.
* THE BOTANY OF DESIRE, A Plant’s-Eye View of the World: Research for my first novel (a.k.a. my practice novel) in which one of my characters was an amateur botanist instilled in me a huge respect for all that is botanical and for nature writing in general.
* SALT, A WORLD HISTORY: I like revisionist historical perspectives. They’re fresh and could be fodder for fiction.
* BUTTERFLY COOING LIKE A DOVE: This is a gorgeous book — an odd mixture of art, nature writing, and literature — written by Miriam Rothschild. I’ve held on to it for years because Jackie Onassis acquired and edited it. Many a day I observed her gorgeous self strolling past my desk at Doubleday Books (where I also worked but as a plebe).
And my bonus book: EAT, PRAY, LOVE, which I will borrow from a friend — because so many people have recommended it and because it was apparently the must-read popular nonfiction book of 2007.
Aaaah, books — heaven.