“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.