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

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Valyserian Festival

Writing a good novel doesn't require genius. You don't even have to be all that smart. But you do have to work hard, and to care. If you don't care, readers won't, which may translate into them tossing your book into the fire grate.

If great care goes into writing a novel generally, greater care should go into its opening. Within the first few paragraphs or pages you'll either gain the reader's confidence or lose it. Gain it, and you can get away with a lot. Lose it, and you won't get away with anything.

With this opening I lost confidence after the first paragraph.

The prologue sets us in a kingdom on another planet on the festival day of the Valyseriat—a species about which we learn little beyond that they're not human (one thinks immediately of Vulcans and Spock). We are firmly in the world of fantasy and science fiction.

Some writers suffer from the mistaken notion that—because they're writing fantasy or science fiction—they don't have to sweat the details. The opposite is closer to the truth. It's easy enough for me to believe in the world I walk and breathe in daily; to believe in another world I need to be convinced. And the way to convince me is through precise, telling details.

In the first paragraph we get no such authenticating details: just a man named Alec sitting by "a large window" concealed by "scarlet curtains" as he watches the festival unfold. All of the sights, sounds, and other sensuous details of the festival are left off the page. We don't know who Alec is hiding from, or why. Though the first line suggests a plurality of festivals, later there seems to be only one. We are told that—while so concealed—Alec thinks, "The Valyseriat"—and that he does so "curiously," meaning either he's curious about the festival, or that the thought in itself is odd. But then we learn that Alec isn't curious at all; in fact he finds the whole spectacle ludicrous. As for the thought being curious, it's not; it's lame, like a man staring at a hamburger thinking, "A hamburger."

A sentence later we're told that Alex studied "about [the Valyserians] alongside Aaron." We aren't told who Aaron is, only that he is "in Earth" (on the Earth? Buried on Earth? Digging a tunnel into the Earth?). Though he studied these beings, they "left no . . . history," however it is known that "they were the leaders of the Valyses" (whoever they were, their history being no less obscure). I wonder what Alec took away from his studies, since he knows nothing.

There are other problems with this opening. Since the scene that follows (in which Prince Alec is summoned by the king to discuss his coronation) has little bearing on the Valyseriat or their festival, why choose this crucial moment to dip us into their nebulous history? Might there not be a better time to fill us in on that background? Alec himself can't "care less" about them; why should we? Furthermore, these are supposedly Alec's thoughts as he peers out from behind the scarlet curtain: but why would he be thinking of things that don't matter to him? Why should he be watching the festival at all, or even present, if not out of diplomatic responsibility in his capacity as Prince, in which case his purpose is defeated by hiding behind that curtain?

Added to these larger questions and concerns are small errors like tense shifts ("now that it has resurfaced Alec was worried") and inconsistent handling of viewpoint (is it "[his] father" or "the King"? From Alec's point of view it should be one or the other). Taken all together, the problems have me wondering two things: 1) how familiar is the author with her own material, and 2) how much does she care? Throughout this opening, I'm dogged by the suspicion that the author is either inexperienced in the art of writing fiction, or winging it, or both. I don't sense that great effort went into these paragraphs.

In any case, more effort needs to go into them, since as they stand the author's imagination and ambitions aren't matched by her skills. More care must be taken to satisfy a close, careful reader, the sort of reader who demands integrity and precision—a category into which most agents and editors fall.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Common Era

There are two principle ways in which characters are evoked in fiction: descriptively, through summary or exposition, or dramatically, through scene.

In this opening page of a novel about a popular young high school teacher with an unhealthy (or anyway dangerous) infatuation with one of his students, the summary method is employed with much skill and success. "Show, don't tell," goes the old writing workshop chestnut. But there's nothing wrong with telling: it just has to be done well.

Here, it's done well. The long second paragraph is packed with information about Stephan, the protagonist—information that serves not only to orient us about his status as a school teacher, but to authenticate that status through telling details (he founded the school's cycling club; his male colleagues wear plaid shirts). By the time I get to the bottom of the page, there's no doubt at least in my mind as to the authenticity of this earnest, long-haired, tieless, earringed high school teacher "seasoned by age yet unspoiled by its coming strain." I feel that I know him, and more than that: that I know something of what it's like to be him.

The advantage of summary description is that through it authors can convey lots of information in little space, as here. Summary description is expedient: it does the job quickly and efficiently. The disadvantage is that, unlike drama, which evokes character through action and dialogue, exposition renders it exclusively through language: i.e., we're forced to accept the author's word[s] for who this person is. As evidence goes—assuming that the narrator is reliable (as most narrators are)—it's solid evidence, but it falls short of being damning evidence. For damning evidence, nothing works as well as actions.

And in this opening the only action given to us is the negative one of Stephan "avoid[ing] the eyes of Mona McCullough." Through his not looking at Mona we learn something about him: namely that he has a thing for her, and also that he is afraid—with good reason—of that thing. The only other hint of "action" here takes the form of sweat breaking under Stephan's armpits — an action which, however involuntary, likewise speaks volumes.

From there we launch into the long expository passage. But wouldn't it be nice if the ratio of action to description in this opening were more balanced—if, for instance, the author were to lavish as much time and detail on the first paragraph as on the second; if we were told not just that he avoids looking at Mona McCullough, but what, precisely, he is avoiding. For instance, those eyes: were he to look at them, what would he see? What does she wear? How does she sit at her desk? Does she wear a skirt? What color? How short? Are her legs crossed? Does she pry off the heel of one saddle shoe with the toe of another (while gently licking the freshly sharpened tip of her #2 pencil)? While avoiding Mona McCullough's eyes, what does Stephan imagine? What inappropriate images does his lustful imagination cast before him as he pretends to examine the syllabus on his desk?

These and other specific details form—or might form—part of the present action of the opening scene, rendering Stephen—as well as the object of his downfall—vivid and unforgettable before we are dipped into summary background.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mommy Get Your Gun

Behind trash bins in a garbage-strewn alley a woman seeks cover from a gun-toting assailant. Of the assailant's identity—or the cause underlying his or her murderous pursuit of the protagonist—we know nothing, not on this first page. We know only that the protagonist is the single mother of a boy named Jamie, who, in the midst of his mother's back-alley struggle for survival, has taken an accidental fall at school and bloodied his nose.

The juxtaposition of two utterly incongruous fictional worlds, of noir detective and struggling single mom —Raymond Chandler meets Murphy Brown—is as tantalizing as it is perplexing. Assuming this woman is ducking real bullets, how on earth did she get herself into such a jam? Equally impressive—and no less perplexing—is the nonchalance ("I rolled my eyes") with which she proceeds to shrug off what a few moments before had been a serious threat to her life and limb to rush to the aid of her slightly injured child.

Or had the threat been serious? Are we being played with? What, exactly, are we to believe?

Whatever is going on here, one thing is clear enough: that somewhere a tongue has been lodged firmly in a cheek. The world of this novel isn't my world, and (hopefully) isn't yours, but a world existing in a parallel universe, one where gun-toting mothers interrupt back alley shoot-outs to kiss their offspring's skinned knees: The world of satire, or, more precisely, of spoof.

The word "spoof" derives from a hoaxing game invented in around the turn of the 19th century by British comedian Arthur Roberts. Since the game involved trickery and nonsense, it wasn't long before the word itself came to stand for tomfoolery. As applied to literature, it denotes a light, playful parody, which, presumably, is what we have here: a parody of a detective novel wherein the detective is an otherwise typical, struggling single mother.

On this first page, that satirical world is created with considerable authority, an authority earned in part by the author's unwillingness to explain, apologize, or make allowances for her premise. As soon as we read, "I crouched, unmoving and stifled; the garbage bins masking my position," we are already ensconced in that ironic world. By plunging us directly into action, the author avoids exposition, and, with it, explanation. In much the same way Kafka convinces us via a single sentence that overnight a man has been transformed into a giant beetle. How this transformation occurred, why it has occurred, Kafka wisely abandons to the reader's imagination. Otherwise it is a fait accompli.

But there are other, smaller ways in which the author undermines that same authority, including poor punctuation (that imprudent semi-colon in the first sentence), subject-verb disagreements (see sentence #3), tense shifts (sentence #4), and a tyro's embrace of adverbs ("desperately," "suddenly," "directly," "slightly"). Given her far-fetched premise that asks so much of readers by way of suspending disbelief, the author has no wiggle-room for such confidence-shaking errors: she'd better get everything just right; for sure she can't get away with telling readers that her heroine's eyes "[follow] the top of [her] head."

Even in a world where single moms shoot it out in blind alleys, we still expect eyes to tag along with the skulls that hold them.

The Other Sister

Though women stopped wearing bodices by the end of the eighteenth century, the term "bodice-ripper" is actually of recent coinage. The phrase debuted in print in a December, 1980 issue of the New York Times, to wit: "Women too have their pornography: Harlequin romances, novels of sweet savagery, bodice-rippers." A second article published in The Village Voice during that same decade characterized bodice-rippers as a strain of romance novels featuring scantily clad women being manhandled by alpha males on their paper covers, and went on to call them "juicy, cheap, predictable, and devoured in stupefying quantities by legions of loyal fans." No wonder, then, that authors of romance fiction haven't embraced the expression. In fact they consider it an insult.

If there's a line between bodice-rippers and "serious" romantic fiction it's a porous one—but then so too is the line between romantic fiction and such darlings of the literary canon as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Pride & Prejudice, which has been called "the best romance novel ever written" (despite having been published in 1813, when, per se, the genre didn't exist). In fact, if we define romance novels as novels of courtship told from the perspective of the heroine that end happily, then the original may be Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Published in 1740, Richardson's novel was one of the few of its time to offer a happy ending. It was also one of the first blockbusters.

However much (or little) prestige we assign to the romance genre, with its shuddering shoulders and lingering caresses the given sample clearly fits the bill. Even the main character's Christian name, by design or not, blows a kiss to Richardson's 1740 prototype. And whatever else may be said of the genre in general, its entertainment value is hard to deny. Fast-paced, suspenseful (in so far as any tale whose conclusion is foregone can hold suspense), studded with sex scenes, hospitable to clichés, stereotypes, black-and-white morality, with little tolerance for subtleties and ambiguities . . . in other words, the literary equivalent of a soap opera.

Which isn't to suggest that the genre lacks sophistication. In its own way it's very sophisticated. There are first of all many more rules to be negotiated than with mainstream or literary fiction, many more restrictions. The protagonists must meet early; adultery must be avoided; ultimately, emotional commitment must be rewarded. Of course, many romance novels have been written that deviate considerably from these "rules" (the present example, with its male protagonist and Botox-enhanced antagonist certainly promises to do so). But even when deviating from them, still, it takes skill to negotiate such restrictions and still evoke breathing characters seemingly capable of exercising their own will.

And this author exercises considerable skill. From Lady Pamela's first drawled words ("Really, darling— I can't believe you're marrying a girl you haven't even met") I get a strong sense of her less-than exemplary character: a spoiled rich woman with (perhaps) her own designs on Alfie, a man committed to marriage not out of convenience or greed, but out of, if not love, duty.

However entertaining, I suggest that what's presented here isn't the opening of this novel, but a scene from deeper into it, after the relationship between Alfie and his Colombian bride-to-be has been established, along with Lady Pamela's stake in all of this, such that when we arrive at this scene we'll appreciate the dynamics that underlie it. Though I've painted Pamela as antagonist, for all we know this could be her novel, and we're meant to cheer her on in her mission to rescue Alfie from a doomed, loveless marriage. As things stand we don't know who to care for, or why.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Trinity of Miracles

Wordsworth defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility [italics mine]."

If we broaden the definition of poetry to include poetic prose, and then broaden it further still to include writing that successfully evokes subjective experience, then—if Wordsworth is right—the best condition for good writing isn't one of feverish frenzy, but one of calm equilibrium. This of course flies in the face of the popular cliché: the masterpiece produced in a "white heat," with author foaming at the mouth while spilling his blood and guts on the page (the visual artist equivalent: Van Gogh as played by Kirk Douglas, gripping his straw hat and licking this brushes in the midst of the mistral).

Assuming such masterpieces exist (facts speak against it: if van Gogh succeeded as a painter he did so despite his frenzied circumstances, not thanks to them), for every work achieved under such conditions there must a hundred times as many abortions and failures. The unromantic truth being that successful art is produced by sane people under calm—or relatively calm—circumstances.

On the first page in question a woman gives birth during a storm. The opening itself is a tempest of frenzied and feverish language. Among adjectives alone we get swollen, dilated, labored, grunting, uncontrollable, torrential, desperate, exhausted, agonizing, gutteral. Verb choices are no less turbulent: cracked, pushed, ripped, moaned, cried, clung, fired, pleaded, begged. Whether this opening was produced in a state of fervor or one of serenity I have no way of knowing, but here we have emotions presented not in calm or even remotely objective terms, but in a verbal squall.

That's not to say that the writing here isn't effective; it is. But then so is a kick in the stomach. In fact the prose here is so intent on visceral jolts that reading it feels something like sticking your fingers into an electrical socket. Ever sentence packs a punch. And just as by the third paragraph this pummeled reader found himself gasping for breath, so did the writer, his sentences spluttering and coughing with ellipses.

This sort of breathless, over-the-top prose stuffs the pages of bestselling novels, especially horror novels (I'm thinking of The da Vince Code and Stephen King at his italicized worst). It sells lots of novels. But is it good writing?

For me, the marriage of frantic subject with frantic prose is an unhappy one. Instead of complementing what's going on in the story, the style works against it. It's overkill—like putting butter on gravy. The sensational experience isn't allowed to speak for itself (compare with, "I was born in the belly of a white elephant during a 30-day dry Northeaster"—the opening of Christopher Cook Gilmore's Atlantic City Proof); instead, we listen through the author's screams.

Another risk of heaping breathless prose on furious events is that of unintended comedy. Benjamin Cheever once explained comedy to me this way: "You take a very tragic event, make it more tragic, then make it even more tragic. Then it's funny." He gave an example of a woman in labor driving herself to the hospital at two in the morning. On the way she gets a flat tire. It's raining. She jacks up the car only to find her spare tire missing. As she stands there weeping a trailer truck passes through a mud puddle, spattering her in her pajamas.

When I relate this scenario to my writing students before I even get to the trailer truck they are laughing. Reading The Da Vinci Code, I had a similar experience. By the end of the prologue when the museum director writes an encrypted code on his chest with his own blood, I found myself laughing—not, I gather, what the author intended (though for all we know Dan Brown may have laughed, too: all the way to the bank).

Personally, I'd rather have dramatic actions speak for themselves than have an author shouting them in my face.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Overabundance of Beginnings

As writers we face a barrage of choices, one of the thorniest being where to begin our stories? At the beginning, in the middle, or near the end? If at the beginning, where at the beginning? How close to the inciting incident—the singular event that will wrest the protagonist out of her routine existence? If the inciting incident is, say, the protagonist's decision to go to Timbuktu, should we begin at the moment when this idea first occurs to her, or with her packing her bags for the journey, or with her already aboard a plane bound for whatever airport one flies into en route to Timbuktu? Or do we start with her already there, in Timbuktu, with her adventure well underway?

Here, the author makes an end-run, or tries to, around that thorny choice by offering us not one, but two beginnings, the first dipping us into the middle of the story (paragraph 1), the second taking us back to what appears to be the story's beginning (paragraph 2). If in opening a novel a writer puts his best foot forward, here the writer has put his two best feet forward. The result, needless to say, trips over itself.

By telegraphing the major conflict ("I was too gay, and knew it, to arbitrate between a lesbian couple and their dysfunctional single nemesis”), the first opening points us, abstractly, into the psychological heart of the story. It tells us what the story is about, while drawing a kind of diagnostic conclusion about the characters and their situation. This has its advantages. It presents us with the main theme of the novel, so we know, more or less, what we're getting into. The disadvantage is that like all summaries it's abstract, vague, general. It doesn't ground us in experiences, it only captions them. It is anti-dramatic.

However bland, the second opening ("Five years ago I took up tennis") takes the more dramatic approach, enticing us into the story by means of a simple declaration of fact— audacious in its blandness—signaling not a set of abstract psychological circumstances but an event, one that presumably will either embody or pave the way to the inciting incident. As a direct or indirect result of having taken up tennis something will to happen to the protagonist. It's no throat-grabber; it packs not the punch of "Call me Ishmael" nor the paradoxical poetry of "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Still, as opening sentences go, "Five years ago I took up tennis" isn't bad; in fact it's rather good.

For one thing, "Five years ago I took up tennis" is good because it doesn't grab us by the throat, or try to, as so many first sentences do. Too often writers employ shock tactics to gain their readers' attentions; it takes a brave, confident author to appeal to us not with shock, but through humble simplicity.

"Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary." There's nothing shocking or impressive about this first sentence, either. It opens E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, one of the greatest novels of the 19th century.

Think of the opening sentences of your novel as arrows thrust toward the heart of your story. It's not necessary for the arrows to strike a direct hit on their target; they don't even have to deliver a glancing blow. All that matters is that the arrow is hurled in the right direction, that it carries the reader toward and not away from the target. If you have a good story to tell and your words point toward that story, that's enough, or should be.

Have I Got Your Attention Now?

"Defamiliarization" is a technique whereby artists force their audiences to look at familiar things and ideas in new, unfamiliar ways. The term was coined by Russian author and critic Victor Shklovsky in his 1917 essay "Art as Technique," in which he distinguished between poetic and practical language: language used to describe or explain, as opposed to language used to impart perceptions or heighten existing ones.

Poets and poetic artists typically use defamiliartzation to breathe fresh life into thinks ordinary and banal. Similes and metaphors work this way. When Lorrie Moore compares a mother's face to "a big white dumpling of worry" or Richard Brautigan compares a dish of ice cream to "Kafka's hat," they force us to look at something familiar in an unfamiliar way. We're momentarily disoriented—shocked, even—but then we say to ourselves, "Yes, yes: I see it now."

Here, defamiliarization is used exclusively for shock value: not to impart a fresh way of looking at things, but to catch the reader off-guard and keep him that way. It's not the first time that literature has furnished us with examples of men and lions confronting each other at close quarters (the most notorious being Yan Martel's The Life of Pie, where they do so across an ocean in a lifeboat). But the man sitting across the table from the narrator is not a lion; he is Big Sid, a hospital orderly with a taste for lager who stands (but presumably doesn't sit) a foot taller than his companion. Otherwise, unless we count bunched shoulder muscles and blazing eyes, there's nothing especially lion-like about him.

Which is all right, assuming that the comparison isn't meant to be symbolic or even poetic, but is a literal description of a hallucination—a possibility that the narrator himself raises in the fourth paragraph. In which case it won't be the first time that literature has given us an hallucinating mental hospital orderly, either: the most famous of those being Chief Bromden, the narrator of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who witnesses events through an hallucinatory, psychotropic-drug induced fog. But the hallucinatory explanation here is quickly cast aside; indeed, in the rest of the passage the narrator pretty much shrugs off the whole lion analogy, which near the bottom of the page gives a little roar with the words "Bloody predator," but otherwise makes itself scarce.

The solution, I think, is either to jettison the analogy completely, or weave it more thoroughly in to the description of Sid, to emphasize his leonine features so that we readers, too, will see him as his narrator does, rather than have the comparison imposed on us.

As it stands what brings Big Sid to life in this opening isn't the narrator's shock-tactic metaphor, but Sid's strong dialogue ("I'm in charge of the loony bin, Pete. My cabbage patch.") in conjunction with his actions ("He chugged beer, burped, and carried on."). As a character Big Sid speaks well for himself; he doesn't need a lion to roar for him.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Prologue: The Cage's Mentor:

Where to begin? That has to be one of the hardest choices a novelist faces. What makes the choice hard isn't a lack of possible starting points, but a surfeit of them. Hence the beauty of the prologue: it lets us have two beginnings instead of just one. Prologues may let us dip into our stories before they start, giving readers a kind of prequel to what follows. Or they can dip into some dramatic moment in the future—the heroine being escorted to the gallows—with the tale we read starting in Chapter 1 telling us how she got there.

The prologue above presents us with the spectacle of gladiatorial combat or something like it: a sport wherein people (in this case women) entertain audiences through deadly, hand-to-hand combat. Historically, gladiatorial games took place during the Roman Empire. Many gladiators were soldier-prisoners who volunteered for gladiatorial combat training as a way to regain the honor lost through their having surrendered or been captured. It's a colorful if gruesome sidebar in history, one exploited many times by novelists and filmmakers and therefor rife with cliché.

Whether the author of the given prologue is treating Roman or some other form of gladiatorial combat isn't clear. No dates or place names are given; the one specific concrete detail provided in the prologue is the professional combatant's name: Celestial Monte—an odd choice, Monte being short for either Montague (French in origin; not commonly used until the 19th century) or Montgomery, which dates back to the Gauls (N.B. the Romans began overtaking Celtic Gaul in 121 B.C.); while "Celestial," on the other hand, is strictly New Age, the name of a Tom Robbins character, or an herbal tea infusion.

Perhaps the prologue is set in some distant future in which gladiatorial combat has been revived; for all we know it may be set on another planet, in another universe (as suggested by the main character's cosmic name). In any case, this material demands much suspension of disbelief on the part of readers, meaning great confidence in the author—a confidence unfortunately not earned here.

One reason: the author's clumsy handling of grammar and syntax ("It was only then, at her last battle, did I never clap again"), due either to carelessness or to the fact that English may not be the author's first language—in which case I have to admire his or her bravery and audaciousness. Editors, publishers, and agents are likely to take a much dimmer view.

Apart from being grammatically challenged, however, there are problems with this prologue. For one thing it fails to do what prologues do best: claim the reader's attention by way of a dramatic scene that provides a context for the main story to follow.

Though the raw materials are dramatic and even sensational, what's on the page here isn't dramatic. A fiction writer's main job is to create experience; here, no experience is directly offered. Instead of "seeing" Celestia Monte in action (through the eyes of the narrator, an eyewitness), we are told things about her. "She was the strongest, most vigilant fighter." So says the narrator, who piles on more adjectives ("she was strong", "she showed no mercy" "she was neither tired nor injured"). But adjectives are opinions, not facts; and we treat them as we treat all opinions, with at least a measure of skepticism. The great advantage of showing versus telling is that it lets readers form their own opinions based on concrete evidence. Here, rather than reaping the benefits of the narrator's eyes, ears, and other sensory perceptions, we get only his editorial verdicts.

Since nothing is shown and everything is told, nothing is convincing. And considering the sensational nature of the material, unless the author manages to suspend disbelief through convincing detail, the slightest skepticism on the reader's part will likely result in his closing the book, or worse, flinging it across the room.

There is a place for exposition—for "telling" rather than "showing." There are times when our narrators need to summarize events, and even editorialize on them. But the time to do those things probably isn't in the midst of a spectacle. And certainly in a story about gladiators (or the equivalent) readers can't be blamed for wanting spectacle.

In the sample given the crowd grows aggravated; they want blood. I suspect that readers of this prologue will be similarly frustrated. And the blood they demand may be that of the author who has failed to provide the visceral spectacle promised by his subject matter.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

An Untitled Memoir

On learning that her sister is pregnant, a woman is overcome with envy. That's the gist of this opening scene, and it raises a question: in telling a story, when should we dramatize things, and when is it better to simply summarize or state them?

Here, all the effort that's gone into dramatizing this moment in the narrator's life feels misguided, since a simple, direct statement ("When I learned that my sister was pregnant, at first I was happy for her. It took about ten minutes for my happiness to turn to envy.") could do the trick much more efficiently.

Aside from achieving little beyond what's accomplished by the bald statement, this opening is cluttered and confusing. We slog through a procession of names and relationships, father, siblings, in-laws—a grand total of seven characters (including the narrator) to process within half a page: a headcount sufficient to make readers of Tolstoy dizzy. Indeed, most of the characters mentioned have little if any bearing on the main subject of the scene; nor does it matter, really, whether the news has been posted on Facebook, since the narrator learns it by phone from her father.

Other irrelevancies abound. That the narrator's mother is a schoolteacher is beside the point; and even if it weren't, do we really need to be told, here, that finding substitutes is "a necessary part of [her] job"?

"Show, don't tell," goes the old writing workshop chestnut. But there are times when telling is better and this is one of them.

Prelude to a Prelude

An unnamed woman of indeterminate age—having either survived a broken love affair or poised to embark on one—settles into her shabby beachfront apartment. Based on the title, we may reasonably assume the latter.

The title raises other issues. Though not protected by copyright, and though there’s no law requiring them to be original, you want to take into consideration whether a title has too much wear on it. A quick search at Amazon reveals no fewer than 49 products with this title, best known as that of Craig Luca’s 1988 drama, irrespective of which the phrase itself is common enough so that—unless used ironically—it may strike some readers as trite.

Like the title, the direct, inviting first line promises a love story. By making the sentence its own paragraph, the author increases its portentousness, suggesting that this meeting will be fateful and may result not only in one or more broken hearts, but in tragedy.

The implied point of view in the second paragraph is that of the protagonist about to park her car in front of the cigar shop housed in the building where she lives. But the sensory details provided here are not, or would not seem to be, part of her experience of the present moment: i.e. can she be parking her car and hearing the “clacking of the wind” simultaneously? Does she see “neat white boats bobbing” as she maneuvers her Ford? If the purpose of fiction is to create experience for the reader, it's important for the author to know whose experience is being reported. Is is that of an omniscient, objective narrator, or that of a specific woman parking her car? It can’t be both.

In the next or third paragraph, with the point of view settled into that of the main character, we are able to enjoy the wealth of sensory details—the clicking of sandals against pavement, the color of the evening sky, the calm “rushing” of the bay. Sounds, sighs, smells— all generously and judiciously evoked. The writing is richly atmospheric. At the end of the same paragraph, however, the POV slips again, with the reader being told about the quality of the apartment beyond the “cheap and thin door,” though the protagonist has yet to open the door and enter that experience. Why not describe the interior of the apartment from her POV once she has entered it, and not before?

The third and fourth paragraphs build on the sense of mood and atmosphere established in the second, with details of setting grounded in the character’s sensual experience: she sees the sun setting, she smells the salty air, she hears the lapping of waves. So far, beyond the vague and rather coy reference to “all her worries,” nothing in the way of a conflict or plot has been suggested. Which is all right, provided that the writer does indeed have a story to tell us about this woman, and provided that the status quo of her daily existence, so lovingly established here, is disrupted within the next few pages as readers will have every right to expect.

Which raises several questions. Is this where the story begins, or where it ends? Has the fateful meeting already occurred, or does it lie in store? The implication of the opening sentence is that we will soon bear witness to the fateful encounter by way of a dramatic scene. What has just been stated or summarized will now be shown or dramatized.

If that's the case, unless the front doorbell is about to ring (with our protagonist sipping Chablis on her balcony), perhaps it would be wiser for the author to state more specifically in that first sentence the circumstances the fateful meeting ("They met in a bar in Atlantic City,"), and start her tale accordingly: not with protagonist wallowing in her apartment, but at a bar the evening in question. What's being dramatized here? A fateful first encounter, or a woman's routine existence in her shabby Atlantic City digs?

Or has that fateful meeting already occurred, along with the attended love affair, in some past to which this scene is about to flash us back? If so, then what we are being presented with here is the frame of a story, and not the story itself. And that flashback will have to be motivated.

In any event, based on the quality of what I’ve read so far, I would keep reading.