Shelley McKibbon (coneycat) wrote,
Shelley McKibbon
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Link to an interesting blog post on novel openings

Livia Blackburne's blog often has good content, and links to other people's good content. That's where I found this link to a blog post in which Patricia Wrede offers clarification on some of the "rules" about novel openings.

Actually, Livia makes a great point in her own post on this topic. Pullout quote:

It's often said that you need to understand a writing rule before you break it. But given [the example cited in the entry], looks like you also need to understand the rule before you even follow it.

Heh. Yeah, good point. As I've said more than once, I've run into plenty of examples of well-intentioned people trying to define "show not tell," and half the time the definition is just "telling" in more words, because they didn't understand what "show" really meant, or realize that sometimes you just have to tell and live with it.

Anyway, to get back to the Wrede post on openings--I agree with her point that what hooks one reader might repel another, and since you can't please everyone you might as well be Ricky Nelson.

However, what I consider the really brilliant bit of advice she offers--or maybe it's just a really clear articulation of something aspiring writers should know, but we don't always think of in so many words--is this:

In the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of any book, the writer is making a series of implied promises to the reader: These are the people you will see more of. These are the kinds of problems they will have to solve. You can trust me to pose interesting questions, and you can trust me to answer them satisfactorily. This is the sort of story you are reading, and this is how I am writing it. Every time the writer breaks one of these promises, it pushes the reader away from the book.

(Wrede also cites several quiet and un-hooky openings from published fiction. I checked, and the dates on those openings are: 1937 2006, 1967, 1969, 2006. Those two current examples are important--if they all dated from before 1970, they wouldn't be relevant in the current publishing climate, no matter how well Patrick O'Brian's novels continue to sell.)

A few weeks ago I posted about how I realized I needed to change the opening of Kowalski 2. The first couple of pages of the story introduce Jordy (my main character) and Kit the vet (who gets Jordy and his friends involved in the mystery.) You may recall that my original opening had Jordy working in a boarding stable, and calling the vet because one of the horses was injured. The only reason I picked that opening was because a couple of years ago Mitzi hurt herself in exactly the way described, and I thought the situation would be a nice way of demonstrating what kind of a guy the vet was.

And all that was fine, and probably true, and in some ways that opening worked quite well. The problem, and it took me a while to see it, was this:

I promised horses in the opening pages. And the story the followed was not about horses.

I talked around it a lot more in the entry where I wrote about thinking I needed to change the opening, but that was the heart of the problem, and in the discussion that followed it was clear everyone who commented got it, even if you didn't say it in so many words: opening a story in a horse barn implies the location will be important to the rest of the story. I had no plans to write Kowalski 2 as a "horsey mystery," which meant my original opening stood a very good chance of misleading a lot of readers.

It was pretty easy to change my setup and turn my large-animal vet character into a small-animal vet, then give Jordy a reason to be in the clinic. And the reason it was easy to make that change was simply that the stuff I was changing was in no way central to the mystery.

I read a blog post a while back from an aspiring writer who was sending out a women's-fiction manuscript with an opening couple of paragraphs that talked in detail about supernatural activity. It appears the writer had several responses from agents or editors or whatever that asked, "When does the supernatural activity come in?" The writer was pretty bewildered because she wasn't writing a supernatural story. And she didn't seem to get that, as far as readers were concerned, she had promised them supernatural activity.

If you go on about something in the first page of a story, a lot of readers will assume it's important. If you can delete a whole idea from the opening and not change the core story, then apparently that opening isn't integral to the story.

Yes, yes, I know: you can reword any opening. But as I say: taking the horses out of chapter one did not change Kowalski 2 at all. If I had taken Texas and the music festival out of Kowalski 1, that would have substantially altered the story.

I happen to have a bit of a pet peeve with "Whee! Look at me!" heavy-handed hooky first lines that don't lead anywhere, so maybe I'm just hammering at this because it relates to a peeve of mine in the first place.

However--in general, I think it's a good idea not to lie to the reader on the first page. Because if they decide immediately that they can't trust me, it's pretty likely I'll have a lot of trouble getting them to suspend their disbelief and trust the rest of the story.

And thank you Patricia Wrede and Livia Blackburne for the excellent posts!
Tags: kowalski, writing
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