About Writers, writing technique

First Paragraphs/ Damn Those Torpedoes.

51nNw+HN4VL.jpg“It isn’t the most striking beginning to a novel. It won’t ever be anthologised alongside Orwell’s clocks striking 13, or Anthony Burgess’ catamite and archbishop. But the fact that it is unshowy doesn’t mean it isn’t impressive writing. That assured understatement is a sign of an author in control. And an author who is going to mess you around in most delightful and unsettling ways.

The Bottle Factory Outing more than delivers on that initial promise. Its sentences remain so masterfully restrained that you barely notice the barb until you’ve taken a few steps on – and find yourself hooked back.”

– Sam Jordison (I think. Hard to pin it down.)

Sam (or whoever) also said: “Tell me again why she hasn’t won the Booker . . .” Well, she has won it, finally.

“The tobacco overtook her, when they gave her the Booker she was dead in her grave.”

Mark Knopfler, from his song Beryl. Which is where I first heard the name, and said to myself, who is this person? I have to check her out.

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The advice these days for an opening paragraph is along the lines of: jump straight into an active scene, personality, conflict, dialogue, drama.

The Art and Craft of Fiction, A Writer’s Guide, gives us an encouraging step-by-step.

Inform and convince / Spark curiosity / Set the stakes

This is in reference to a first chapter. It’s a tall order for a first paragraph, in which you need to choose a direction. I appreciate, in recreational reading, lush scene setting. (In Sly, I save that for chapter two, having heeded (or tried to heed) that go-active advice.

I prefer old style foundational description, including, yes, including the amazing opener to The Princess Casamassima by Henry James, which will leave many a today reader behind fast. This quirky ramble says to me, this story will poke its nose into every corner of life on the flimsiest of excuses and will deal with every stray matter to an extreme degree. And so, though this scene is not grab-me-by-the-throat, I foresee great fun ahead. I have lessons here in punctuation, and in language (a fluttered wish, love it) and I find permission to ramble in my own thing. For me, it’s an all-round good time. Here we go:

“Oh yes, I daresay I can find the child, if you would like to see him,” Miss Punsent said; she had a fluttered wish to assent to every suggestion made by her visitor, whom she regarded as a high and rather terrible personage. To look for the little boy she came out of her small parlour, which she had been ashamed to exhibit is so untidy a state, with paper “patterns” lying about on the furniture and snippings of stuff scattered over the carpet – she came out of this somewhat stuffy sanctuary, dedicated at once to social intercourse and to the ingenious art to which her life had been devoted, and, opening the house-door, turned her eyes up and down the little street. It would presently be tea-time, and she knew that at that solemn hour Hyacinth narrowed the circle of his wanderings. She was anxious and impatient and in a fever of excitement and complacency, and not wanting to keep Mrs. Bowerbank waiting, though she sat there, heavily and consideringly, as if she meant to stay; and wondering not a little whether the object of her quest would have a dirty face. Mr. Bowerbank had intimated so definitely that she thought it remarkable on Miss Pynsent’s part to have taken care of him gratuitously for so many years, that the humble dressmaker, whose imagination took flights about every one but herself and who had never been conscious of an exemplary benevolence, suddenly aspired to appear, throughout, as devoted to the child as she had truck her large, grave guest as being, and felt how much she should like him to come in fresh and frank and looking as pretty as he sometimes did.

This is less than half of the paragraph. (!) I see, thumbing through the book, that James is given to very long paragraphs. I like long paragraphs. You can say interesting things, in interesting ways, in long paragraphs. (Not so terribly catchy here, but that’s the theology I live by.) Henry James is my kind of guy.

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First person is by definition more immediate. I see first person as a leg up in any story. Richard Henry Dana, in Two Years Before the Mast, covers all bases, story to style, in an economical, thoroughly enjoyable manner:

The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim, on her voyage from Boston, round Cape Horn, to the western coast of North America. As she was to get underway early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o’clock, in full sea-rig, with my shest containing an outfit for a two or three years’ voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books, with plenty of hard work, plain food, and open air, a weakness in the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my studies, and which no medical aid seemed likely to remedy.

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Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing, also gives us an overview, in an easier, more contemporary vein, also with lovely flow:

When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they’d named Hidalgo was itself little older than the child. In the country they’d quit lay the bones of a sister and the bones of his maternal grandmother. The new country was rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a crossfence. He’d carried Boyd before him in the bow of the saddle and named to him features of the landscape and birds and animals in both Spanish and English. In the new house they slept in the room off the kitchen and he would lie awake at night and listen to his brother’s breathing in the dark and he would whisper half aloud to him as he slept his plans for them and the life they would have.

Again, the reputation drives my interest, but there is enough style here to tempt me and I already understand a good bit about who this fellow is.

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Let’s sample A Confederacy of Dunces:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grow in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black mustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Whoa! Glorious, humorous complexity, a real delight. We’re in for a rollicking good time. I’m in on this one, wholeheartedly. (Until I’m not, of course. It’s only one paragraph. And it may become too much of a good thing.) But, maybe not. It won something big. Was it the Pulitzer?

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What do all these examples have in Common? A touch of the poetic, some of it over-the-rainbow, some of it try-our-patience, some of it common-man.

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Maltese Falcon? Broad, but lovely, setting a definite tone:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down-from high flat temples-in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a bond satan.

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This is interesting. Beryl Bainbridge, from The Bottle Factory Outing:

The hearse stood outside the block of flats, waiting for the old lady. Freda was crying. There were some children and a dog running in and out of the line of bare black trees planted in the pavement.

“I don’t know why you’re crying, said Brenda. “You didn’t know her.”

This is very Beryl. The story comes at you on little cat feet. We don’t learn much here except that we are probably in a shabby, transient  neighborhood in which neighbors don’t know each other. And it’s told plain-Jane, no verbal hijinks.

I said to myself, this stuff won her the Booker Prize? But loopy detail upon loopy detail finally reached a critical mass. Half way in I surrendered to her charm. From her reputation, I was looking to be knocked off my feet. Something flashy. Beryl is not flashy. Don’t look for it, you won’t find it.

One reviewer wrote: “Beryl Bainbridge manages plots of escalating comedy and grotesqueness with consummate skill. She is brilliant at scattering humour over seemingly gruesome terrain”. Key word here, escalating. Absolutely!

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Then (sigh) there’s Danielle Steele, The Sins of the Mother:

Olivia Grayson sat in the chairman’s seat at the board meeting, listening intently to the presentations, her intense blue eyes taking in each member of the board. Her eyes were quick and sharp. She was totally still, wearing a well-cut navy blue pantsuit, and a string of pearls around her neck. Her hair was a sleek bob, cut to the level of her jawbone just below the ear. It was the same snow-white color it had been since her early thirties. She was one of those striking women you would notice in any room. She was timeless, ageless, with high cheekbones and an angular face, and elegant hands as she held a pen poised above her notepad. She always took notes at the meetings, and had a flawless memory of what went on, in what order, and everything that was said. Her keen mind and sharp business sense had won her the reputation for being brilliant, but more than anything she was practical and had an innate, unfailing sense of what was right for her company. She had turned the profitable hardware store her mother had inherited years before into a model for international operations on a mammoth scale.

This is as unappealing a passage as I have ever read. This woman is a million-plus best seller? This is pap. It tells us nothing that makes us interested in this creature, the characterization is stale (and tasteless) as day-old French bread, and it repeats ideas. I might be wrong but, isn’t an international operation by definition on a mammoth scale?

A woman chairman. Of when? Let me check. Copyright 2012. Amazing. The approach feels so Jacqueline Susann/retro. Not that I’ve read any Jacqueline Susann. That’s my no-evidence-to-back-it-up half-assed pronouncement. Somebody clue me in.

I don’t give a damn about timeless/ageless/pearls/pantsuits. Any one of us could draw a thumbnail sketch in a far tastier fashion. For me, this is off to a very bad start. I doubtless bought this thing for research, to see how the other half writes. Probably paid fifty cents at a library sale. Into the trash with it.

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This is like eating potato chips. I can’t stop.

Summertime, and the living is sleazy: Tobacco Road. I love this book. I’m looking for it, can’t find it. I’ll add it in later.

Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis. “The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist . . .” This first line grabs me because it sounds very Amanda McKittrick Ros. (He’s not at all A-McK-R, of course, but the thought tickles me nonetheless.)

From an excerpt (which is all I have of it) of her Irene Iddesleigh:

“The month preceding Irene’s wedding was one of merriment at Dilworth Castle, Lord and Lady Dilworth extending the social hand of fashionable folly on four different occasions. They seemed drunk with delight that Irene, whom they looked upon as their own daughter, should carry off the palm of purity, whilst affluence, position, and title were for years waiting with restless pride to triumph at its grasp.”

This bit is great fun, but a whole book of it wears you down fast. What keeps you reading? To discover a gem, like southern necessary, her term for a pair of pants. Priceless! This is why she’s still read (by looney-tunes like me) a century later.

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What does all this tell us? Not a lot, but I had fun writing it.

My conclusion: After a level of competence has been reached, we must please ourselves. Dig deep, find your authentic voice, and tell a story that you would enjoy reading. Don’t second-guess the market, that’s a fool’s errand.

I think the job of a first paragraph is to establish a personality. It’s the personality that pulls me in. Not the plot. Never the plot. (Beryl Bainbridge being the exception, with her you get no plot, and no personality. You persist on a wing and a prayer until her brilliance begins to sink in.) OK, Mark Knopfler has given her a powerful recommendation. Anyone Marks likes, I give extra time for the audition. He knows a thing or two about words.

What’s my point here?

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. I’ll meet you at the bottom of the cold, cruel sea that is Amazon. Yo-ho, kids. Bring plenty of rum. My gut tells me we’re gonna need it.

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10 thoughts on “First Paragraphs/ Damn Those Torpedoes.

  1. GD Deckard says:

    “…tell a story that you would enjoy reading. Don’t second-guess the market, that’s a fool’s errand.”

    WoW Mimi! What a wonder-full post. It was a joy to read and given the current state of writing as 20-word-text-bursts, refreshing as well. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mimispeike says:

    I am trying to figure out what attracts me to a book. The common thinking, an in-a-nutshell blurb and an active opening paragraph, doesn’t do it for me. Many of the blurbs I read turn me off immediately. I want to see solid evidence of an enjoyable style.

    What attracts you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • GD Deckard says:

      If at all interested, I go right to the first paragraph. If I read past that, I know I’ll probably enjoy the book. I have no trouble judging a book by its first paragraph.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Mimi: Why can’t an “in-the-nutshell blurb and an active opening paragraph” also be “solid evidence of an enjoyable style”? Is it even possible to have one without the other(s)? Show me the evidence of a poorly written blurb and/or book’s opening paragraph whose writer then goes on to type out a masterpiece of prose. I daresay such a fade-in/fade-out, logorrhoeic push-me/pull-you creature doesn’t exist. Never has; never will.

      Your examples illustrate this point: all immediately immerse us in divers writers’ voices that are–each in their own way–compelling, competent, assured, compulsively readable.

      I take your point re: resenting oft-repeated advice that a story’s opening paragraph should be blah-blah-blah. You bristle at the pressure to conform to existing successful literary models. But that’s all they are: models. Feel free to ignore them if you wish. Rules were made to be broken, right? Only . . . your argument is a bit of a strawman. No one is suggesting that every story must open a certain way; with precisely calibrated amounts of ingredients x, y and z. Rather, certain genres and subject matter and story tones work best on the reader when arranged in certain optimal patterns, that’s all.

      Think of it this way (if it helps): Human beings are an amazingly diverse bunch, right? Physicality, mannerisms, personality. Yet . . . most display bilateral symmetry: a pair of arms and legs each side of the body, heads perched atop necks and “eyeballs two” facing front. You could, I suppose–if you were errant strings of DNA unzipping and then recombining in mad mutative fashion–construct a creature with head-and-ass switched, with external instead of internal organs, and feet positioned at the end of, say, eight spider-like arms instead of hands–but such a pitiable beast probably wouldn’t live long. Nor likely be successfully adapted to its environment.

      Our craft works the same way: infinite variation within certain strictly proscribed limits, models and patterns. Feel free to experiment, improvise, revise and revise again. But remember–any such beast you birth will then have to enter an oft-times actively hostile social Darwinian environment: editors, critics, general readers who will display varying degrees of reading comprehension, willful ignorance, indifference, sullen resentment, a perverse and stubborn propensity for misreading and/or shrill adherence to inexpertly applied and woefully misunderstood literary models and shibboleths. All very tiresome, to be sure. Nevertheless, survival of the organism (the book) here equates to longevity on the historical stage. (And btw: just how long do you think any given work can remain relevant and widely read, given the rapidity with which all languages constantly morph and bastardize and aggregate themselves into something else?)

      Pick your master and model(s) according to your talent and taste. But once having done so, listen to what they tell you.

      As the old expression goes: “When the student is ready, the master appears.”

      Not: “When the student is ready, kill the master.” (Well . . . come to think of it . . . Darth Vader subscribed to this latter maxim, heh!)

      PS. I did very much enjoy reading your selection of contrasting literary models. Good choices all.

      Liked by 5 people

      • mimispeike says:

        I just (re)read your first paragraph of Huck Fang – read it a good while back – one sentence jumps out at me. I never met anyone who didn’t lie at one time or another. I would start with that sentence in a slightly pared down intro:

        I never met anyone who didn’t lie at one time or another. And that includes Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary and the Widow Douglas, you know all about ’em if you ever read that book by Mr. Twain. Hell, it includes Twain hisself, who left out a whole lotta stuff he coulda tole about on account of not complicating things up unnecessarily. So I’m gonna tell you about ‘em, cause I don’t give a silver-dollar damn about complicated. Who am I? I was born Finn, but I think of myself as Fang. Sit back, grab a brew, I’m gonna tell you all about it.

        I’d get the rest into paragraph two.

        I just want to tell you, that line, I never met anyone who didn’t lie at one time or another, terrific!

        I am going to read all four chapters to get a better idea of what’s going on here.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thanks for taking another look at how my ever-in-progress novel Huck Fang is coming along. I’ll look for your criticism under the appropriate WIP chapter headings.

          As to what it’s all about, I’ll repeat here what I said back in those halcyon Book Country days:
          ……………………………………
          THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FANG is a reimagining of Mark Twain’s THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN as a Southern Gothic novel. The book is replete with all manner of undead and weird goings-on. Within the pages of AHF the reader will encounter vampires, witches, ghouls, ghosts, zombies, etc. The titular protagonist of the book, Huckleberry Finn, is bitten by his “pap” early on and suffers the curse of lycanthropy. He becomes a werewolf and adopts the name “Huckleberry Fang” as his gang name when initiated into Tom Sawyer’s band of robbers. The text closely follows Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ classic novel, albeit the plot is now one punctuated by outré occurrence and macabre incident. Huck Fang runs away from the widow and his pap and meets up with escaped slave Jim as they travel downriver into the heart of darkness that comprises the slave-owning, pre-Civil War South. AHF, though obviously not the same book as HUCKLEBERRY FINN, presents itself as the genuine article. This is very much by design. Without a page-by-page comparison of both texts the reader may well forget that he is reading an altered version of the book—until one of the aforementioned outré incidents occurs. In this wise the book may be considered (in the terminology coined by Philip K. Dick) a “fake fake”: not the genuine article masquerading as its own counterfeit, which is one definition of the term; but something subtler, more slippery, trickster-like: a counterfeit text that announces its fakeness while lulling us during the reading into engaging with the text as genuine, in fact as Mark Twain’s own words—until we run across a textual passage we know very well simply could not have existed in the original. This reimagined novel is thus its own möbius strip-like ontological category that perplexingly mimics, while simultaneously undermining, consensual reality. It is both true and untrue, genuine and a fraud, at one and the same time.
          …………………………………..

          What I didn’t say then I will say now: My ambition in reworking the book is to . . . nah, I’ll save that for the introduction. Because if it isn’t immediately apparent in the text I will have already failed. . . .

          Liked by 2 people

  3. atthysgage says:

    This is fun, Mimi. Great selection.
    There is a certain sense to the in media res beginning, but it can get tiresome. And really, if the writing is good, I don’t need instant action. I think that whole approach can become a crutch for some writers. As long as the shrapnel is flying, you doin’t need to be original or creative.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    I do worry about how much expectations come in here. If anyone cares to do it, set up a post with a half dozen first paragraphs, no well known passages, no well known character names, some respected classics, some self pubbed recent works, and let me (and all of us) rate them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • atthysgage says:

      That sounds like fun, Mimi. I’ll put something together. (Though I think I’d prefer to use the words discuss or consider, rather than rate.)

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Some good first paragraphs there,and good thoughts to go with them. I think the first paragraph sets up expectations about a lot of things, so in that sense it is quite crucial, but it’s never put me off so much I’ll stop right there. That’s if I’ve already got the book. In a shop – yes, it might. So I tend to revise it 50 times as opposed to 15 times for the rest.
    Speaking of openings, a link to little tongue-in-cheek piece I wrote on the matter a year ago; https://curtisbaussebooks.com/2016/04/01/a-is-for-agent/

    Liked by 2 people

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