Monday, February 14, 2011

Column: Begin Again by Mandy Houk

A common problem with first novels is the saggy, flabby middle. But it seems that the portion most often tackled by writing books and workshops is the beginning. The first five pages; the first page; the first line.

This is crucial, of course, because readers (agents, editors, or Joe Schmo browsing at Borders) generally begin…um…at the beginning. Your middle can have the literary equivalent of six-pack abs, but your readers won’t know it if they never turn a page.

The classic prescriptions for fixing a slow first page have a common theme: get things moving.

Begin with action.
Start with the moment that everything changes.
Put your character in jeopardy on the very first page.

Here’s the rub: my writing leans toward literary. (Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that nothing happens.) How do I begin my work-in-progress with “the moment that everything changes” when I want the reader to care that it happens before it does? This requires some understanding of the complicated attachment my brother and sister protagonists have with their father, and the distance they feel from rest of the family. I don’t want to resort to flashbacks since my novel-in-a-drawer was crawling with them (hence the drawer).

When I’ve ignored my own instincts and followed the “rules” anyway, I’ve hated my beginning and found myself utterly disinterested in working on the thing at all. So, what’s the solution?

One afternoon, after again trying to rework my first page and getting nowhere good, I turned to my bookshelves and grabbed a few of my favorite novels to do some research.

I was delighted to find that all my favorite beginnings share something in common: they start with the central longing, or at least preoccupation, of the main character. In just the first few lines, the reader sees what the main character most desires, regrets, fears, loves, or hates.

Sometimes it’s concrete and stated outright, as in Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.

From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with—given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century.

The main character, Reuben, is a young boy with severe asthma whose father just happens to work miracles—one of which was bringing Reuben back to life after he was born dead: “a clay boy.” Reuben’s battle for breath and his father’s miracles are central to several pivotal moments in the book, and both are introduced within the first three pages.

In other examples, the desire is more abstract, but still gripping. Anne Tyler is the master here. From Back When We Were Grownups: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” And Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant:

While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her. It twitched her lips and rustled her breath, and she felt her son lean forward from where he kept watch by her bed. “Get…” she told him. “You should have got…”

You should have got an extra mother, was what she meant to say, the way we started extra children after the first child fell so ill.

This kind of opening is a powerful way to reveal character immediately (it’s pretty obvious that Pearl is not the cuddly sort). It’s especially clear when comparing the first lines of Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons with those of The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Both are first-person stories told by young girls who are abused and neglected by their fathers.

Ellen begins: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.”

Lily of Bees is more introspective and a wee bit less vengeful:

At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.

The fact that Ellen savors the notion of murder while Lily envies the freedom of insects tells you straight away that you’re being introduced to two vastly different girls.

Once I found the similarities between my favorite literary novels, I wanted to see if I could find the same in other genres. So I cracked open a book I had read recently—Down River, the Edgar Award-winning mystery by John Hart (one of PPWC 2011’s featured speakers). It positively oozes with both longing and regret.

The river is my earliest memory. The front porch of my father’s house looks down on it from a low knoll, and I have pictures, faded yellow, of my first days on that porch. I slept in my mother’s arms as she rocked there, played in the dust while my father fished, and I know the feel of that river even now: the slow churn of red clay, the back eddies under cut banks, the secrets it whispered to the hard, pink granite of Rowan County. Everything that shaped me happened near that river. I lost my mother in sight of it, fell in love on its banks. I could smell it on the day my father drove me out. It was part of my soul, and I thought I’d lost it forever.

But things can change, that’s what I told myself. Mistakes can be undone, wrongs righted. That’s what brought me home.

Not only is there overlap between genres. The advice itself—the classic ideas and this “longing” thing—can intersect. Pearl and Reuben are both in jeopardy as they face death on their respective first pages. In Back When We Were Grownups, Rebecca’s realization that she’s “the wrong person” leads her to change everything about herself.

And look at this beginning from the thriller The Oath by Frank Peretti: “She ran, tree limbs and brambles scratching, grabbing, tripping, and slapping her as if they were bony hands, reaching for her out of the darkness.” This one’s got all the tried-and-true elements: action, jeopardy—and everything seems to be changing. But it’s got longing, too, as the character tries desperately to escape from something or someone.

What it boils down to is that there are different ways to tackle those all-important first lines. If you’ve struggled with your beginning, or if you want to make sure it’s everything you want it to be, then pull out your own favorite books. Find the openings that grab you and see what they have in common. Action? Longing? A bit of both? Something else entirely? Whatever it is, go with that. You’ll be on your way to crafting the kind of story that you’ll love writing—and readers will keep reading.

Mandy Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and woefully underpaid home schooling mom. She's sold several nonfiction articles and stories, and placed in a couple of short fiction contests, but she has yet to break into book-length fiction. Her first novel is safely and appropriately in a deep, dark drawer. Her second is in its final rewrite, and will be sent out to agents in 2011. No, really.

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