Tuesday, February 26, 2008

He Turned Off the Alarm Clock and Looked in the Mirror and Other Advice on Beginnings

Up and Around

Currently on my IPOD:
"Oh, What a Beautiful Morning"
~Ray Charles Version...Check it out!

Quote of the week:
Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.
An Ideal Husband
~Oscar Wilde

Current Weather:
Light wispy clouds of hope followed by
afternoon thunderstorms with possible
lightening strikes consisting of hard work.

My Dear Friends,

How are you this week? Me? I'm fine. Just dandy. I am currently in Santa Barbara visiting with my editor to start the revision process. I flew into LAX yesterday evening and the bus ride from there to S.B. was quite beautiful. The pics from the sunset will be up in my myspace slideshow and under places I've been for viewing if you are interested in seeing them.

So, the revisions have begun. But first things first. Go through your MS and highlight all the adverbs, seems to's, as if's and other sins of manuscript transgression. Then after you are done with that, check the opening scene. Did your character hit his alarm clock snooze button for the tenth time and get out of bed? And then what...did he look at himself longingly in the mirror, rub his day old stubble and then reflect about his sunken cheeks, pale blue eyes and the big hairy birthmark in the shape of Iraq on the top of his forehead and then ruminate about how he was going to become the next Gorbachev. And then after this long mirror ego stroking session maybe he'll manage to go to the bathroom, look in the mirror again and then take a shower after he has decided to shave his birthmark before announcing his plans to take over a country....

Hmmm...one of the best exercises I have been taught is to go to the bookstore, library or whatever and read the openings to as many books as possible. One of the bigger sins in writing is to open a book with this typical newbie opening. So Cicily, where the hell are you going with this...

Well, after removing the opening scene of my book and moving it towards the end of the book where it properly belonged, I realized that I was now starting the book out with my MC waking up, getting out of bed and beginning his morning routine. I then felt like the book needed the words, but little did he know that today would change his life... Yeah, don't do that one either. Unless you add to the story some dark and impending doom theme music as the reader goes along. So,what this means for me, is that its time for a new opening to the story. I can keep this scene in there, somewhere, somehow, because I feel its important to the story and to the MC characterization, but means its time for a new opening.

The opening scene in your book needs to be stellar, exciting and nail bitingly good. What is going to make your book different than other books? What can make it stand out to that editor, agent or grandmother in the nursing home down the street?

As a reader, would you give a shit about what's going on if the only thing the character does in the opening scene is turn off the damn alarm or look in the mirror and reflect upon his good looks? Now, here's the exception. If your MC turns off the alarm, the clock explodes and giant demonic looking Care Bears drop from the sky, screaming Tally Ho as they leap into his bedroom through his roof and he immediately ensures himself and the beautiful woman sleeping next to him that he WILL save the world, then that is a whole different story. And let me know if you do write this story, I would love to read it.

You need to start off with some kind of action or something that gives you the beginning of the history of the MC. (And no, turning off an alarm clock is not action and backstory doesn't count either.) If you are writing a fantasy novel or sci-fi novel, beware of your backstory. I know you have spent countless hours creating this world and that you feel you HAVE TO, explain what happened before you can get on with the story, but what the reader inherently wants from you is not the history of the world you created in a 100 page introduction. The reader wants to see your hero or heroine in the action of defending his home planet, cyborg or concubine from the evil whatever. Show us what happened in the past in little doses throughout the book. Trust me, give your reader some credit and open up with a bang of a scene.

Opening lines can vary. But as I said with the first scene..do not have it start with someone doing something mundane like getting out of bed. Opening lines must beg a question, or tell me just enough of the story to get me into the action.

Let's look at some examples of good opening lines:

Dances with Wolves by: Michael Blake: "Leuitenant Dunbar wasn't really swallowed."

This line has me hooked. Already I want to know who this guy is and why someone thought he was swallowed in the first place and what really happened to him. Result, I kept reading.

The Color Purple by: Alice Walker: "You better not never tell nobody but God."

Same kind of thing. I want to know who the character is talking to, why she is telling this person to keep a secret and what her background is because of her speech.

Slaughterhouse Five by: Kurt Vonnegut: "All this happened, more or less."

This line is perfect. What the hell is he talking about? More or less? Is there a lie to be told, is there a partial truth that begs to come out?...You bet. And what do you have to do with this opening line? You have to keep reading.

The same principle applies to short fiction. Let's take a look at some opening lines from the latest issue of McSweeney.

"The Strange Career of Doctor Raju Gopalarajan" by: Rajesh Parameswaran
"None of us were surprised when we heard Gopi Kumar had been fired from his job at CompUSA."

Who the hell is Gopi Kumar and how on earth does someone get fired from CompUSA? And why weren't they surprised?

"Rough Cut" by: Christian Winn: "The Mormon has fought before."

This begs the same question. Who is the Mormon and why was he fighting and what is he doing now?

You should strive to ask these same questions and pull in your reader. The opening line to my second book, which is now officially in progress, is: The three men with whom this started would all be dead by the end.

We'll see how it fits with the rest of the story when it is finished. But for now, I think its sufficiently average.

Overall, your opening scene and lines need to be some of the best lines in your book, no matter what genre, form or whatever the story is. Short, long, novella, novel, flash, it all has to start the same. Give me something to hold onto as I keep reading. First impressions, not only as a writer, but your characters and their story need to be precise and evocative. You wouldn't walk into a meeting with a NY literary agent wearing a T-shirt you've held onto since the sixth grade and a pair of jeans that one would consider flood-waters and a pair of flip-flops would you? So your story shouldn't leave that bad aftertaste in your mouth either. Write something that will change someone's mind about the story and make them keep reading from the first word to the last.

So, for now, I am off. Having said all this, I realize more and more that I need to go work on my own damn opening... Have a wonderful day and of course, I'll see you next week, same time, same place, more or less same topic.

Yours in Openings, Owning Your Story and Oily Fingertips from too Much Popcorn,


1 comment:

bookfraud said...

interesting, i've seen other debates recently on other blogs about book openings -- some say grab 'em by the neck, others prefer fewer fireworks.

of my favorite books, i can remember the opening lines of fewer than half of them. but that they didn't start out "call me ishmael" or "all happy families are alike..." didn't diminish their artistry. then again, i'll always remember "lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins" and "i am an invisible man" will sit with me until i go senile.

i don't know if you have to have a nabokovian first line, but you do have to grab them somehow.

nice blog. don't know how i wandered over here.