Category Archives: Beginnings & Endings

Stuck on a Novel Opening

I’m in the mode of revising the very rough draft of my WIP. How rough? I practically get abrasions from turning the pages. But that’s OK. My philosophy is that any first draft is good, and truth to tell, I really like how this story is shaping up.

But as I revise, I know the opening needs a lot of work. It probably amounts to only one or two paragraphs, but I’m struggling. One things I’ve decided to do is draft five different openings and see what that tells.

What will help, I think, is to look at my little collection of novel beginnings to see what I can learn. Here’s one from One True Thing, by Anna Quindlen:

Excerpt: Jail is not as bad as you might imagine. When I say jail I don’t mean prison. Prison is the kind of place you see in old movies or public TV documentaries, those enormous gray places with guard towers at each corner and curly stripes of razor wire going round and round like a loop–the loop atop a high fence. Prison is where they hit the bars with metal spoons, plan insurrection in the yard, and take the smallest boy–the one in on a first offense–into the shower room, while the guards pretend not to look and leave him to find his own way out, blood trickling palely, crimson mixed with milky white, down the backs of his hairless thighs, the shadows at the backs of his eyes changed forever.

My Take-away: The first sentence hooks me. What follows pulls us into a description of prisons as we identify with what we’ve seen in movies and on TV. It leads us from the innocuous physical characteristics of a prison exterior to the vulgar assault of a boy with hairless thighs. I’m impressed with Quindlen’s ability to evoke the horror of that scene without overly graphic details. And this paragraph lets you know you’re in for a ride with a superb writer.

But on the whole, this is unfortunately a trick opening for what is otherwise a really fine novel. The narrator is not in prison, and she’s most certainly not in a men’s prison.

What I can take away from this novel opening and apply to what I’m trying to do is the recognition that my original draft failed to hit the mark in terms of suggesting what was to come. I have the protagonist grappling with one thing, when it’s really another matter altogether that dogs her.

Back to the drawing board.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, consists not of creating out of the void but out of chaos.

–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

 

Vonnegut’s 1952 Novel Strikes a Nerve Today

I may have to re-read Player Piano, the late Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, published in 1952. Contemplating a dystopian post-WWIiI future, he envisioned a class-divided America in which meaningful work is almost non-existent. Here’s the opening:

 

Excerpt: Ilium, New York, is divided into three parts.

In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live.

If the bridge across the Iroquois were dynamited, few daily routines would be disturbed. Not many people on either side have reasons other than curiosity for crossing.

During the war, in thousands of Iliums over America, managers and engineers learned to get along without their men and women who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war–production with almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how that won the war. Democracy owed its life to know-how.

My Take-away: How disturbing or frightening were these words in 1952? Apparently not disturbing enough for society to reorganize itself in the face of inevitable loss of jobs and denigration of work.

I recall about three years ago visiting Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream plant in Vermont. A fun tour, but what stays with me is that looking through a glass window at the production floor below, I saw just two human beings.

In a July 1973 Playboy magazine interview, Vonnegut explained the inspiration for the novel. While working for General Electric in 1949 he watched a computerized milling machine cutting out rotors for jet engines and gas turbines. “Player Piano was my response to having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.”

Quote du Jour

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Stephen King wrote this in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Love the thought, which I could apply to exercise, writing, reading, so many aspects of my life. Too bad it’s so long. I suppose a tattoo is out of the question. (Thanks to Brad Whittington and Darrell Bryant for this quote.)

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

The Promise of a Strong Beginning

Tracy Chevalier has penned an intriguing opening for her latest novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, a book whose subject—Johnny Appleseed and a family of apple growers—might seem less than compelling:

Excerpt: They were fighting over apples again. He wanted to grow more eaters, to eat. She wanted more spitters, to drink. It was an argument rehearsed so often that by now they both played their parts perfectly, their words flowing smooth and monotonous around each other since they had heard them enough times not to have to listen anymore.

What made the fight between sweet and sour different this time was not that James Goodenough was tired; he was always tired. It wore a man down, carving a life from the Black Swamp. It was not that Sadie Goodenough was hung over; she was often hung over. The difference was that John Chapman had been with them the night before. Of all the Goodenoughs, only Sadie stayed up and listened to him talk late into the night, occasionally throwing pinecones onto the fire to make it flare. The spark in his eyes and belly and God knows where else had leapt over to her like a flame finding its true path from one curled wood shaving to another. She was always happier, sassier, and surer of herself after John Chapman visited.

 My take-away: Two people in conflict from the get-go, always a good start. But what lifts this to a masterful level is the language, the metaphor of the fire, and the description of relationships headed for a blow-up.

In the first paragraph, we learn the argument is an old one and in the second what makes the argument different this time. Now jealousy enters the picture. And the last line of that paragraph is a lesson in itself: how to convey that Sadie was attracted to John without using words like “feelings” or a cliché like “she was walking on air.”

Also Chevalier sneaks in back story that manages to keep our focus on the present because her primary purpose in presenting the couple’s history is to sharpen the significance of what’s happening now.

I’ve only started reading this novel so I don’t know how well it fulfills the promise of this powerful beginning. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment.