Saturday, January 29, 2011

In The Beginning...

Way back in the Precambrian, I wrote about opening lines and what they mean about the novel that follows. Well, I'm at a point in my work in progress that I think I've got all the bases covered regarding plotting and length (that's not true, but I'm sticking to my timeline, and my timeline says I should be done with all that stuff, so I am). So now I am carefully going over my opening pages and looking for ways to improve.

My belief that opening portions of a book are vitally important not only has anecdotal proof - in this case, me, because I use them as an indicator of the book as a whole - but of late I've been reading from an industry professional that insists that a great opening is necessary to avoid being rejected out of hand.

It gave me an opportunity to look at recent iterations of my opening moments of my work and see how it flows. Here is a look from my second draft:
“Mommy?” I called, sticking my head around the corner, I couldn’t have been more than six. She was standing over our kitchen sink, washing dishes and humming to herself.
Right off the bat I must note that almost every piece of fiction I ever write starts off with dialog. I think it's to fight my desire to lay out fifteen pages of backstory before I let anything interesting happen. Now, I like my opening scene a lot. I think it's pretty strong. But I'm not sure if a description of someone washing dishes is as powerful as I want. Oh, and I think the prose is a bit awkward there too. Could use some cleaning up anyway.

So I scrapped that opening in my third draft of this chapter and it went like this:
I tip-toed through the hallway towards the kitchen, stifling my laughter as well as any six-year old could. I snorted and hiccuped my way into the room as I fought down my desire to shout in excitement. 
Sigh. Did I actually use the word "hiccuped"? I "hiccuped my way into the room."? Geez. I was trying to inject at least a hint of excitement. I figure that if I'm going to have the scene about the mother washing dishes a few paragraphs down then some sort of movement was necessary. But after looking at it several times I think its not really an improvement over my previous version.

So I tried again:
The mind of a child is a curious thing. That my six year old mind was entirely abnormal was a fact unknown to me at the time. Such is the blissfulness of youth. Knowing this then however, would have saved me a great deal of pain.
Ugh. was I high? I like the concept, introducing a speculative element to the story, however vague, at least hints that something is atypical in what is to follow. I'm not quite sold on the execution though. I mean, I use 'mind' twice in the first two sentences and the phrase "knowing this then however" is about as nonsensical as they come. That's okay for me though, if I had decided to stay with this line of thinking I would have made it read much better. I decided to abandon it pretty quickly after I wrote it though.

Attempt# 4:
The mind of any child is a curious thing. My mind however, was abnormal even among the young. Being ignorant of this fact did little to make it less painful when I hurt those I loved the most.
Is that better? I used 'mind' again twice in the first two sentences again, I may be writing in circles here. I decided a different tact might work better, so here is #5:
Joan of Arc claimed to speak with God. At the age of six I had her beat. Because God not only spoke to me, but I could prove it. I sure hoped Momma would be surprised.
That is my latest attempt at an opening. I waffled a bit on this one, as it gives something away that was previously only revealed at the end of the scene. They mystery that I hoped was inherent in the earlier versions is gone. Replaced, I hope, with the tension that comes from knowing that this naive child is going to do something that will not go over well.

Is it a better opening? Did I make anything better, or only different? I don't know. I'll keep on working to make it as good as I can. I'll read it again tomorrow after I had a night to reflect and see how it looks then.

Until then, happy days my friends.


Mister Sharaf said...


Les said...

Five attempts at the opening lines, hey. Can't wait to see your take on the last lines in the book.

Nancy said...

Jeff liked the last one best but wasn't sure why. I liked the original best because it put me in the middle of a scene I could visualize. It seemed like it had a better voice to it. But everybody's got an opinion and you have to go with what you think feels right. I think it is awesome that you are moving forward.

Rusty Webb said...

Mister Sharaf - as always, thank you.

Les - phhht, by the time it's over I'll just be happy if I have a coherent sentence. It's all about the opening.

Nancy - The first one was the opening line I turned in at Julia's workshop all those years ago. It is a bit more tender, but the entire first scene seems really sappy to me and I thought I should reel it in just a bit. As it is now (my latest version) it's still borderline melodramatic but I would hope that the first line sets the tone for the larger story that the novel itself tells - which is a bit different in tone than the opening might lead you to think.

Also, I suppose it's possible to over think things a bit. But I really want the first few pages to be as tight as possible.

Wannabe Writer said...

Am I weird for really liking the second one? The final one is great too, but give a very different feeling. I think I like the second one, because the image is so fun. Makes me giggle (and hiccup?).

Rusty Webb said...

Thanks Wannabe - when I emailed a copy of my latest draft to myself for backup I wrote a short note in my title that said "Tone tone tone... that could be a problem". It was a warning to me that I'm worried about having a consistent voice throughout the novel.

As I've mentioned several times before, I started on this six years ago. That's long enough for my writing to change a lot, as well as me as a person. I'm worried about me going from sarcastic to wimpy to tough and all over again because different passages were written so far apart in time.

That said, I liked the second one too, it's more or less the second paragraph now (I did change the word hiccuped). It may get changed again soon though. We'll see.

Anonymous said...

I gave up on an opening line and settled on an opening paragraph. It was too mind boggling and frustrating to have that one awe inspiring first line. Maybe on my next book I can think of that great one liner. Best wishes to you!

Rusty Webb said...

Hey Stephen - Yeah, the opening line bit from a previous post was just because I sampled 10 different books and was too lazy to copy the entire opening paragraphs.

If you have a knockout opening paragraph then I'd say you've won half the battle.