Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Beginnings and pig races

I've been gone for a week and the best I can come up with is... life is like a pig race; blink and you miss it. No, really, I went to a fair and that is EXACTLY what I learned. You see, pig races are all about the BUILD-UP, the HOOK. Get the audience into the bleachers, get them to stick around for the MAIN EVENT... but then they'll miss it if they BLINK.

Novels, although they are usually a little longer than a pig race, need to hook the audience, too. (See how smoothly I did that? Not just ANYone can have a blog, you know. Well, I guess anyone CAN have a blog... but some of us are smooth.)

In literary novels (I’ve been told), everything you’re going to say in the book should be laid out at the very beginning, but in a way that doesn’t dull the suspense. You want the reader—admit it, the person who gives your manuscript a first read for a publisher—to have the correct mindset for the book, to be interested in your characters, to want to know what is going to happen to them... And you want your audience to keep their butts in the bleachers... I mean, to KEEP READING.

Clint McCown (War Memorials, The Member Guest, and The Weatherman), said in a workshop that every word in every sentence must serve a purpose and every sentence in every paragraph must serve a purpose—but none moreso (well, maybe he didn’t say “moreso”) than the very first sentence of the novel. THAT sentence bears the responsibility of getting you to read the SECOND sentence. I’ve read Clint’s books, and, well, I have to say that they were good—but I could have stopped reading after the first sentence of any one of them. BUT I get his point.

(Try it some time. Read the first sentences of your favourite books. Are you HOOKED? Please let me know.)

And, of course, I understand that, just as the first sentence bears a HUGE BURDEN, that of getting you to read the second sentence, then so does the first chapter, that of getting you to read the second chapter. From a business standpoint, publishers (and the minions of publishers, especially the minions—no one’s more busy than a minion) don’t have time to bother with a book that doesn’t grab you in the first paragraphs. In fact, what do publishers and agents ask to see? The first three chapters and ONLY the first three chapters. (And I thought I had a short attention span.)

I recently read a book by a Canadian author that illustrates that one CAN summarize a book in the first chapter (page 4, as a matter of fact) and without the reader (this reader) even being aware of it until the END of the book—or aware that this is why I read on even though The Stone Angel is not what I would call “my kind of book.”

Here’s the passage from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (The New Canadian Library edition, 1988. First published in 1964 by McClelland and Stewart):

Now I am rampant with memory. I don't often indulge in this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you that the old live in the past--that's nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has a rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all. But one dissembles, usually, for the sake of such as Marvin, who is somehow comforted by the picture of old ladies feeding like docile rabbits on the lettuce leaves of other times, other manners. How unfair I am. Well, why not? To carp like this--it's my only enjoyment, that and the cigarettes, a habit I acquired only ten years ago, out of boredom. Marvin thinks it disgraceful of me to smoke, at my age, ninety. To him, there is something distressing in the sight of Hagar Shipley, who by some mischance happens to be his mother, with a little white burning tube held saucily between arthritic fingers. Now I light one of my cigarettes and stump around my room, remembering furiously, for no reason except that I am caught up in it. I must be careful not to speak aloud, though, for if I do Marvin will look at Doris and Doris will look meaningfully back at Marvin, and one of them will say, "Mother's having one of her days." Let them talk. What do I care now what people say? I cared too long.

I hope that wasn’t too long a passage for “fair use.” Go buy the book, okay? That will make everyone happy. (Well, Margaret Laurence passed away in 1987, so she probably doesn’t care. But someone will be happy if you buy this book—probably you.)

When I finished reading The Stone Angel, I realized that Laurence had introduced the main characters and had clearly defined the theme and the dilemma—and even the resolution in that one paragraph. And by page 4, I was “hooked,” not by the first sentence of the book (“Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand.”) although that is a darned good first sentence, if you think about it. Laurence created in the first chapter, in the first few pages of her book, a character and a situation and with such skillful use of language, that I wanted to read on.

Quality. What a hook.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said: (Try it some time. Read the first sentences of your favourite books. Are you HOOKED? Please let me know.)

My response: No. I can pretty much stop after the first sentence. I usually check out the first few pages. If I want to continue reading I buy the book, or sit down and read it.


1:37 PM  
Blogger Lacerta said...

While I agree the first sentence is important, I don't agree that it can make or break whether people read your book.

I believe the first paragraphs, the first pages are the important factors for leading the reader into your story, to hooking their interest in your characters, for wanting to continue reading.

If someone doesn't have a good feel for who your characters are, have an engaging reason to continue reading, most like they won't. However, I don't cater to gimicky beginnings.

Good stuff Judy.

6:09 AM  

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