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

Sunday, May 9, 2010


The well-written first page of this work-in-progress presents us with a female protagonist—a woman of extraordinary virtues and eccentricities. Or so at least we are told by the first person narrator.

According to the narrator, Lucia:
—is "a true individual"
—is "an independent thinker"
—has "an incredible imagination"
We learn, furthermore, that she is a woman of many names—including the saintly names given to her at birth by her parents, and nicknames assigned to her later by herself and others, Lucia being just one of many (presumably the one by which the narrator knows her).

But Lucia's abundance of names accounts for only one of many eccentricities, which include being an only child, left-handed, and a Capricorn. All this we are told by the narrator, who also tells us that these and other characteristics "made [Lucia] different from others."

Certainly one method of evoking characters is by way of other characters—in this case, by way of a first person narrator who, at least for the time being, remains unnamed and otherwise, for the most part, completely anonymous. With respect to the narrator we can with certainty say only that she is a woman, that she came of age in the 1960s (and is probably a woman in her sixties). We might also assume that she admires Lucia. At any rate she couches her opinions in terms of admiration. Then again, so does Marc Antony when speaking of Caesar to the mob.

The problem with this method of character evocation is that it tends to leave room for doubt. Since first person narrators are human, and since humans tend to look at the world through subjective eyes, no human narrator is completely objective; which is to say that no human narrator is entirely reliable. What we get from human narrators is, to a greater or lesser extent, an opinion. It is up to readers to decide how much to invest in those opinions, what degree of credibility to assign to them. The degree of credibility assigned to a narrator is based largely on the extent to which the narrator's opinions are supported by concrete evidence. When, for instance, the butler narrator of Ishiguro's Remains of the Day tells us that, in forsaking his love for Miss Kenton he was acting appropriately given his vocation, we see right through this rationalization into his broken heart.

Here, since we are presented only with abstractions with no concrete scenes or evidence with which to compare them, we are left at the end of this first page with only a very fuzzy sense of both narrator and subject: neither jumps off the page; both remain abstractions.

"Show—don't tell," says the English teacher. But there is nothing wrong, really, with telling, just as there is nothing wrong with abstractions, per se. But unless they're accompanied by illustrations—by solid evidence—abstractions alone aren't very satisfying. Here, to the extent that the title character is evoked at all, she is evoked by means of a series of adjectives. And adjectives are opinions: on the continuum of evidence they rank very low, down there with hearsay. We take them in only to see them upheld or refuted, until which time we reserve judgment.

As for Lucia, until I have more concrete evidence, I will do likewise. But I do wish that within this first page I had more to cling to than a narrator's words, however well-written.

Monday, May 3, 2010


At the outdoor table of his Spanish villa overlooking a Mediterranean bay a sculptor in glass wraps his works for an important exhibition. Normally, he would perform such chores in his studio, but for reasons unstated he's chosen to work outdoors, on a blustery day, and against the wishes of friends who have enjoined him not to use the table as a workspace.

There are some lovely qualities to this opening scene. As a lover of anything to do with the Mediterranean, I can't help being drawn into the setting. I'm also drawn to this artist by his Romanian background (one that begs explaining, since his surname, Macek, is most common among Latin Americans) and by the distinct nature of his work. Though I've run into hundreds of fictional artists working in oils on canvas, and chiseling marble, so far I've met no glass sculptors. (One thinks of Chihuly, but he's no Romanian.)

The setting and the artist are engaging; the scene less so. For action, we have a man wrapping things, rather absentmindedly, while surveying the "visitors" (tourists?) as they struggle to preserve their hairdos while walking a windy promenade, and to dwell on critical receptions of his work. The protagonist is more wrapped up in his thoughts than in his wrapping.

Which brings me to one problem with this otherwise well-written opening scene: Mr. Macek's ruminations—assuming they're his ruminations and not the interjections of an intrusive author—feel unmotivated or irrelevant.

The second paragraph offers the first rumination, about Mr. Macek's daughter, who, we learn, like the visitors promenading below, has had her own struggles with her hair, black and kinky "when the style was for long and straight." While there's no question that these are Mr. Macek's thoughts, why would he think them? A short mental leap might get him from the people below and their hair issues to his own "wiry strands," but to get from there to women in general, and from women in general to his daughter and to her hair struggles takes many leaps, all by a man wrapping sculptures on a windy Spanish balcony for a major exhibition.

These kinds of seemingly arbitrary musings are the stuff of stream-of-consciousness. But since the technique touches only this one paragraph, its use here likewise feels arbitrary or accidental. It's one thing to plunge readers into a character's stream-of-consciousness; it's another to soak them for one paragraph then leave them high and dry.

In the third paragraph as the artist wraps "another piece for the show at the Museo d'Arte in Barcelona" (we're told—rather intrusively), we're treated to a Wikipedia entry summarizing past critical responses to his art, including a snippet review. The contrast between this and the earlier passage where the protagonist dwells on his daughter's kinks couldn't be greater. The first takes us into the character's psyche, the second is dryly objective.

If compelling reasons exist for Mr. Macek's choosing to work outdoors in blustery weather rather than in his studio, those reasons might form the spine of his interior monologue here. We know the protagonist is wrapping sculptures; we know he's on a balcony overlooking the sea; (we don't need to know, by the way, that the Mediterranean's waters are "turquoise," or that waves unfurl or undulate "as they reach the shore"); we do want to know about protagonist, about whom the most telling thing so far is his refusal to work indoors. Were the scene written from deeper in Macek's viewpoint, his resistance to his own studio might form the substance of a scene which, as written, though as carefully set as a jewel, lacks a thematic center or focus.

Alternatively, a second character might be introduced, a friend who arrives on the balcony and sees the artist wrapping his sculptures at the forbidden table, and reminds him of the injunction against his doing so. This would be the dramatic solution.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Home From Fairview

A woman home from a stay in a mental hospital: that is the subject of this first page. It might be the subject of the chapter as a whole--or, for that matter, of the entire novel. We don't know. We are merely told that Ana Gates is "home after nearly a month in Fairview Clinic." The prose is very strong; the handling of syntax, punctuation, and grammar unimpeachable. As written, this certainly works. Yet it could be less static and abstract. Let's examine it.

With its first sentence, the author dives into figurative language, serving up not one, but two similes in tandem ("like trailer trucks," I was tempted to add), with the heroine "scrubbed clean" like "a sky after a storm" and/or like "a tub after a good grouting." Though made of concrete things like storms and tubs, since they are figurative and not literal similes and metaphors aren't terribly solid: they're symbols for things, not things themselves. And so this opening sentence puts us firmly in abstract territory.

Each of the two similes presents problems, with the problems compounded by their union. First, what is "scoured clean"—the woman's body, or her mind? Presumably her mind, since we're told nothing about her body in the ensuing paragraphs. And since readers yearn for concrete things, whoever reads these words will likely picture a woman whose flesh has been"scoured clean."

If, on the other hand, her mind has been scoured "like the sky after a storm," does it help, then, to compare it to "a tub after a good grouting." Does grouting a bathtub scour it? Similes and metaphors are like those little step stools people keep to reach high shelves in kitchens, to be used when needed to help readers reach a solid impression or image. Here the grouted tub clashes with the storm-scoured sky and isn't likely to help anyone.

The next line gives the first hint of action. "Ana gates was home," but as verbs go none is less active or concrete than the verb "to be." No other action is indicated by the opening paragraph.

The last lines of the opening paragraph give us the condition of Ana Gates' mind, with her unable to decide how she feels about being back home. On the one hand "she should feel good about being back"; on the other Fairview Clinic was "a haven for sanity." But then it's "hard to know what feeling good means," though "she's alive and that might eventually count for something."

"Scoured clean as the sky after a storm" is one way to describe the mental state evoked by these thoughts. "Foggy headed" is another. For sure Ana Gates is confused, and it might be best to let her confusion speak for itself through solid actions and descriptions.

Unlike the first, the second paragraph presents a concrete and vivid picture of Ana in her present circumstances, bundled up in her afghan and looking out the window of her lakeside home while eating breakfast, pulling her breakfast toast apart. But here, too, the author feels compelled to resort to bald abstractions ("Mornings were still rocky") instead of relying on the moment at hand to speak not only for itself but for the character's general state. If Ana feels "jittery," her coffee cup might tremble as she brings it to her lips. If she dreads mornings, her dread might be evoked through a description of her breakfast from deep in her point of view ("the bread crusts looked as appetizing as strips of cardboard."). Only when she swallows the toast and the "warmth spread[s] across her belly," do I at last enter into Ana's body—and, through her body, her psyche. But the effect is undermined by the paragraph's concluding clause which generalizes about Ana's cramping and her miscarriage from beyond her present state, and not from her viewpoint, but from that of an intrusive author.

Here, then, is what a more grounded version of the same opening might look like:
Three days after arriving home from Fairview Clinic, Ana Gates sat at the kitchen table of her summer cottage, pulling her toast apart and sipping black coffee while watching a squadron of Canada geese skid and flap across the surface of Lake Waramug. As she brought it to her lips the coffee cup trembled. With each sip she braced herself, expecting a jolt of pain when the warmth reached her belly. But the moment passed, and she sighed with relief and gratitude. Ever since she'd arrived home from Fairview, the cramps had been coming less frequently.

The crusts of toast on her plate tasted and looked like cardboard. She shoved the plate aside, took up the notebook that Dr. Beckman had presented her with on her last day at the clinic, slid the slim fountain pen (also Felix's gift) from its spiral binding, and pressed its nib to the blank first page. "Write about what you feel now," Felix had suggested. So—what did she feel now? Emptiness. Cold. She drew the crocheted afghan more tightly around her shoulders. Even this late in May the winds off the lake turned the cottage into a refrigerator...
There's no set rule against abstract openings. In beginning Great Expectations with, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Dickens no doubt had good reasons for favoring broad abstraction over concrete events. Through a series of parallel constructions Dickens settles his readers into an epic whose events span generations and confront life's paradoxes across a broad spectrum. Without narrowing his focus, he could hardly have opened with a singular event.

But a novelist of humbler ambitions does well to consider whether static abstractions are truly the best foot forward into his or her story.