Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Paths of Eden

Rather than start with a geography lessons ("The Suwannee River begins in a Georgia swamp . . . " ) why not start with real estate agent Dan Horne in action, driving up a logging road? Stories have one subject, people, not rivers or geography.

Also, rather than have Mr. Horne escorted up a non-specific logging road to a non-specific cabin, why not give readers what they need to form a more clear, less generic image of the road, and to particularize the cabin—but not before we get there. Create the moment with more vivid and immediate sensory detail, an--having created the moment--stay in in it. Also, when does the agent ask "Is this far enough out of the way for you" ? A mile from the cabin? A hundred feet from the door? On the front steps of the cabin? The idea is clear; the action isn’t. The author has not immersed him/herself sufficiently in the event. As readers we are not quite there.

"There was [a kitchen]": the weakest word pairing in the language. Ditto “It was” ["a dark and stormy night."—Edward Bulwer-Lytton]. Since we are sharing Dan's experience here, render the description active through his senses? "He entered a small kitchen . . ."

A kitchen, a room, some furniture. Nothing specified; everything generic. There are no generic kitchens: even in their genericism (beige Formica) kitchens are identified by their particulars. This same tendency to generalize continued with the “sturdy pier” “small boat.” Adjectives give us opinions, but nothing solid, nothing sensual. Rather than give opinions about these objects, provide the sensual details on which the opinions are based. It takes more work, but it's worth it.

By the end of the third paragraph readers may want a visual of at least one of these characters. I don’t "see" them. They are disembodied names and voices.

Last paragraph: They've left the cabin? Unclear. A transition is needed. A white space might help. "Honor the white space."—Mary Gordon.

Right now, this opening is all purely objective, as if a camera were watching these two men. No subjective content; we are not in either of their heads. And yet even the objective camera’s point of view isn’t clear. In film this is never a problem, obviously, since the camera can only be in one place at a time, and we as viewers never question its position. But in fiction, the “camera angle” must be solidly established through language. There is a big difference between a purposefully objective point of view (as Hemingway gives us in his story “The Killers”) and no POV, or one that's accidental or arbitrary. In Hemingway's story, the stark, cold, objective treatment of the material suits the subject: a story about two hired killers arriving in a midwestern town to fulfil a contract. Here, there does not appear to be any such clear intention; the lack of any subjective content or clear point of view filter seems more like an omission than a decision, and makes for a muted, insipid reading experience. We are denied the subjective content of prose/fiction, but are given nothing to take its place. The subjective filter has been removed; but there is no "stark" or "cinemagraphic" filter here to take its place. The result is bland.

Either give us a sense of whose experience we are reading, or provide us with a camera eye's vivid objectivity.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Letter from Tehran

I like the active solidity of this opening passage—though I wonder if the author may have an even better card to play. “The letter came on a Friday.” But by stating emotions outright before readers have any reason to feel them, the last sentence undermines the effect, and that “fearful submission imprisoning my brain” feels forced, awkward, and sentimental; the emotional content feels unearned. To simply say, “I feel as if I never left Iran” is probably ominous enough without forcing more sentiment that the situation—so far—can support.

With no indication of setting in the first paragraph, the second paragraph comes as a disorienting surprise. We are standing in the middle of a road—and have been, presumably, from the novel’s first sentence. And since we are outdoors, there must be weather. It is a certain time of day. Morning? Foggy? Dark? Cold? A blistering sunny summer day? Not a clue. Yet the weather is there; it exists. How can it not be a part of this character’s experience?

With the sentence, “How dare they write to me after all these years when nothing in that world can matter to me again, when I have found peace far away from them?” emotions race ahead of action/experience. Let actions speak; rather than state broad emotional responses, provide context. Who is “they”? Writing after how much time? Provide context, and we will fill in the emotional response. Part of that same context is expressed by: “my weekly drive down to Wintun Hills to cash my pension check, to buy groceries and flowers for the cemetery. “Establish this as context, the routine shattered by the event of receiving this letter. Here, no routine is established. I said elsewhere that most attempts to dramatize routine in fiction are doomed. But you can write a dramatic scene where an event takes place that undermines routine. In fact that is the essence of drama: shattered status-quo.

Here, in the paragraph following the letter, I begin to suspect that the letter reading scene is a framing device for what has led up to this moment, that the real story will take us back to those events that precipitated this scene. Given that suspicion, it occurs to me that the letter here serves perfectly in and by itself as prologue: the important thing here is what the letters says, its contents, and not the sentimentally stated or even the implied response or the scene that goes with it. Instead, why not just give us the letter—we can imagine that it has been received, opened, and read. Then, next chapter: “I once read that a person can escape reality but not memory. And it is true....”

Then go on to tell of those events precipitated by the letter.

The letter is not only the heart of this scene; it is the scene. The rest can be cut.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Detective Novel

First sentences are so important. They tell us what the writer thinks of as his "best foot forward." If that "best foot" is lame, it doesn't set up great expectations for what follows.

Here, the first sentences raises doubts. First, there is the tentativeness of that "maybe." As the first word of what is presumably to be a novel of two to three hundred pages, and a detective novel no less, the writer may want to ask herself, "Do I really want to start off on such a tentative note?" A wishy-washy opener can serve a purpose. The best example I can think of is the opening to John Barth's early novel, The End of the Road. The novel is essentially about a man who cannot make up his mind about anything. It begins, "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner." Compare that with the iron-fisted firmness of "Call me Ishmael."

I'm not sure, though, that wishy-washiness is intended here. My confidence is further undermined by the questionable authenticity of a department store named Drakes located in "upper" Manhattan. Having lived in Manhattan, I know that there isn't and has never been a department store named Drakes; in fact there are no department stores anywhere above 59th Street, where Bloomingdale's is still located. Why not choose a real department store at a real Manhattan location, and not a generic--and not very credible--substitute?

The third sentence, too, can be strengthened. Rather than details already mentioned (and that, as discussed, are less than convincing), the writer might present us with the evidence of solid, specific, and authentic observations, making the narrator's point ("I pay attention") explicit and vivid, rather than a matter of faith. In the next paragraph, instead of stating that the salespeople are "elegantly dressed," why not tell us what they wear, providing us with specifics--down to brand names, if appropriate. Mere epithets won't do.

Lack of authenticity with respect to specific details can cost you readers. But there are other kinds of inauthenticity to guard against. Look at the first sentence of the second paragraph, in which the detective describes what's on the second floor before taking us up the escalator. We might assume he’s been in the store before, but he must have been there quite recently to know the sweaters are still there, and nothing suggests he's done so, so the clever remark about the sweaters feels like an authorial intrusion.

On the other hand once the narrator does go up that escalator (and not before), he might describe the department store's glass-floored mezzanine, or the candy store where the counter clerk where's a conical paper hat, or the men's dressing room with its varnished wooden stalls smelling faintly of vinegar.

Lastly, I think this opening would be strengthened by starting out with a dramatic scene in progress, with the detective already in the store watching the young woman get a facial. Through this carefully described scene we can experience his eye for details—which, after all, is what the scene is really about. The scene might also establish the narrators remoteness and detachment: he sees the pretty young woman, but responds to her clinically, rather than sympathetically, passionately, or poetically.

Whenever a first person narrator describes things, he is also describing his or her psyche to the reader. Opportunities to do so are missed here; the “girl getting facial” scene is brushed aside as are those "swarming" salespeople.