CRAFT: Tortoise and Hare–First lines and the long haul

Let’s not talk about the travails of the household (precious Pom has kennel cough, cranky elderly mother has bronchitis, I stubbed my toe again, house is a wreck, etc.) Let’s do a craft-of-writing post!

You remember that I’m in the Amazon breakthrough novel contest (voting won’t begin until January) and the Court TV/Gather mystery contest (voting going on now), and you’ve probably seen the American Title romance contest and any number of first-line contests for writers. Lot o’ them things going on, ain’t they?

Lately I’ve been musing about all these contests for novelists that are modeled on the “American Idol” plan, in which everyone who wants to vote has a voice (and an equally-powerful vote), and they judge you on your first line or first chapter. These make for some fun reading sometimes, sure, and everyone jumps on the wagon to see where it’ll head.
And certainly I won’t dispute that agents, editors, and other demigods judge you heavily on that first line, first paragraph, first chapter. If these aren’t charmers, grabbers, and full of promise, your manuscript hits the dustbin.

But. But! And again, BUT! (As Ian Fleming writes in _Chitty Chitty Bang Bang_.)

I think it’s a bit wrongheaded to run all these contests such that people choose a winner after skimming over the first three chapters and reading a summary of the rest. Don’t they know that a horse can shoot out of the gate and still falter and lose the race?

You read me right. Hey, I could come up with wild and crazy first lines and chapters that had all sorts of exciting stuff in them fairly easily, *if* I never had to pay off on those promises and setups. If I kill everyone but Jolene and her mouse in scene three and then you vote on how exciting the book has been so far . . . well, that doesn’t tell you whether the rest of the book can hold up to the challenge.

How can we know that those books that start out with the killer first lines aren’t going to suddenly sag in the middle, lose tension, lose their way, and fall apart? I’ve experienced this with published novels that didn’t live up to their potential, so I can make an educated guess that lots of these entrants are posting much-polished openings that may not be backed up by a great book. Do they feel so confident that they can “patch up” the book with a quick edit and then rush it to market with “Winner!” labels?

I think they’ve got problems. For one thing, a writer must ratchet up the stakes and the tension as the book goes along. In some of these tomes, if you actually stuck with the premise set up in the opening and tried to abide by the rules that the author seems to be playing by, you couldn’t do that and still maintain any semblance of plausibility or even “suspension of disbelief.”

When I start writing a book, I’ve always got a few things that I know I need to set up or plant early on. You can’t just run in a character who’s going to be important later without ever mentioning him in the first three chapters. (I’m not talking here about the Stranger Comes to Town bit. I mean that if your character has a husband, you need to mention this early on. If your character’s world expects a Messiah who will appear in chapter four, you need to have someone refer to the long-awaited day that this should happen, or have someone sneer cynically at the very idea that anyone could believe, or what-have-you. If there is going to be an important event that everyone knows about, the reader needs to anticipate it rather than having it burst on the scene with all characters knowing about it but not the reader.) You’ve got to set certain things up early on so that there’ll be a payoff. I’m sure there’s a technical term for this in literary circles.

I typically find that I’ve got to plant some clues (even if it isn’t a mystery!) early on that will click for readers as the narrative pulls them along. You can’t wait TOO long to tell them things they will need to know, or else they won’t have been wondering what THAT meant and won’t get the payoff when they suddenly figure it out. The reader may have “forgotten” that you mentioned that rabid vorpal bunny myth, but when the vorpal bunnies start breaking the windows, the reader will remember that you set this up earlier.

Many times I’ll get comments on my first chapters that say, “Cut out about half of each scene and make them three pages and very quick.” If you do that, you can’t plant an unobtrusive clue that’ll lead into the next development. I suppose some people are so accustomed to the jump-cut MTV speed of James Patterson’s boat anchors that they don’t know any better, but if they’d just give a Book book a try, they might find the experience much more enjoyable than the speedboat stuff that leaves you at the end saying, “But there wasn’t anything TO it. Why did I waste time reading this?” No payoff. Nothing but a wild ride that didn’t have a solid logical story beneath it. Yes, get in and out of a scene without any wasted stuff, but don’t be a telegram. We’re not yet at the point of having to write things all in stage directions and abbreviations.

I like for the first line of a novel and the last line to be related. It’s kind of a full-circle deal. This doesn’t happen with most of the wilder openings, I’ll bet. But when a writer does manage to relate the ending to the opening, it’s magic.

Okay, I ought to give a couple of examples of openings that seem ridiculous to me. Things like, “The stink of blood assaulted Henrietta’s nostrils as the casualties started streaming in, carried on stretchers by bearers who were hardly in better shape themselves. Shots rang out to break the silence of the night, and the moans of the dying brought a tight smile from her boss. He rubbed his palms together greedily. ‘We’re gonna rock on this one,’ he whispered into her ear.” Stuff like that, where you couldn’t possibly keep the tension going up and up.

But . . . I deleted the examples I had, because I don’t want to get into trouble copying first lines from those entries. If you look at a few entries, you might see an example of what I mean.

I may not be making any of this clear. So let’s go to a film example. (More people will have seen this film than will remember any novel I could pick out, pretty much.)

In “The Wizard of Oz,” a helluva lot of stuff is set up in the black-and-white opening (and it also works that way in the book.) At the end, everything’s tied back into that opening and the people who were in it and to the theme, “There’s No Place Like Home,” and the idea that you’ll find what you’re searching far and wide for right in your own back yard. If Baum had not set this stuff up and had just had the cyclone pick up Dorothy and Toto and plant them in Oz, then the story would not have had the resonance that it does for us even today. The story seems current and not dated–it could’ve been written just the other day, and except for the cell phones and computers that would probably be part of the scenery, the tale could be told exactly the same way and retain its power today.

Some books hold up to repeated re-reads. Others don’t even hold up to a complete read-through. I think the contest people are marketing geniuses who just don’t realize that books aren’t THAT kind of widgets . . . that, unlike shoes, books might not rely ONLY on the size and the width in order to be a good fit with a reader.

Anyway . . . I’m just musing about the sales potential of these books that may or may not hold up to being read all the way through, let alone hold up to being re-read and enjoyed. I’ve already seen some howlers in openings that I know cannot be “fixed” later unless the author falls back on “it was all just a dream.” I hope one of THOSE wins, and then let ’em try to defend it against the flamethrowing reviews! Ha.
# # #
Overheard and stolen to be used in a novel someday:

“Please get your feet off each other’s desks. You can all go home and rub each other’s feet after school; just don’t display your foot fetishes in my classroom.”
# # #
Another guy who got published at birth (sigh)–he won the Best First Private Eye Novel Contest run by St. Martin’s, so why haven’t I seen them do any publicity on him? Sheesh!


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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