editing, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Paws Here

This ia a comma.       This is Oscar Wilde

Hello all.

As many of you have no doubt noticed, the first Writer’s Co-op anthology, Down the Rabbit Hole, is finally complete and ready for release in a few short weeks. Ably midwifed by our own Curtis Bausse, it is a fascinating and engaging collection.  I think you’ll like it. As one of the editors, I was impressed with the quality of writing throughout and the diversity of voices.

Editing is fun. It really is. It’s also a tough job. It’s challenging enough when it’s your own manuscript. No matter how many times you go over it, there’s always another question, another uncertainty. Is that the best word? Is my dialogue believable? Can I get rid of that phrase? (Or paragraph? Or chapter?) Am I using that semicolon correctly?

When you’re editing someone else’s work, the responsibilities multiply. Not only are you trying to polish the writing to a high gloss, you have to do so without wrecking the original. You have to respect the author’s own voice, her own style. It can be a tricky balancing act. There are rules for good writing, of course, but much of it is still subjective. (I confess to having a heavy hand. My first impulse is to rewrite, and I apologize if anyone found my suggestions, eh, overbearing.)

On the subject of rules, I want to take a minute to discuss that smallest bit of stigmeological property: the comma. I know, I know – the comma is not the smallest punctuation mark in terms of ink. That honor would go to the period, natch. But the period is a weightier mark in terms of purpose and effect. It denotes, as writers of Commonwealth English know all too well, a full stop. End of the line. No more sentence beyond this point.

The comma is a more subtle and ambiguous creature. Sure, there are some hard and fast rules, but there are times when its use – or lack of same  – can be somewhat discretionary, a style choice. Hence the potential confusion.

The word comma comes from the Greek, komma, meaning “a bit that is cut off.” Originally, Aristophanes of Byzantium (no, not the bawdy Athenian comic playwright, the other Aristophanes) invented a system of dots that could be included in a written text to signify the amount of breath that a reader should take between phrases when reading aloud. This is, more or less, the original concept of the modern comma. (Which gives some idea how ephemeral the comma can be. It was originally nothing but a mouthful of air.) The modern comma derived directly from a little diagonal slash printers used to indicate a pause – the virgula suspensiva. I don’t know why you need to know that, but now you do.

In these oh-so-sophisticated times, the comma isn’t really used to indicate breaths (but then, we don’t do a whole lot of reading out loud anymore either) but it is still used to separate clauses – those “cut off” bits I spoke of.

First: A comma is used to separate dependent clauses from independent clauses when the dependent clause comes first, such as: “After cutting down all the the turpentine trees, I threw myself into a butt of malmsey wine.”  Turn it around (“I threw myself into etc after cutting down all the whatsis”) and you no longer need a comma. Also, use a comma when two independent clauses are stitched together with one of the seven coordinating conjunctions – so, and, yet, but, or, nor, for.  Consider the difference:  “I couldn’t get out of bed if I wanted to, and the phone was ringing off the hook”  as opposed to “I slaughtered all the innocents because they were getting on my nerves.”  Because is a subordinating conjunction here, so it doesn’t need a comma. There are many others – since, unless, although, after, whereas, whether, while, just to name a few. They don’t need a comma unless the clause they introduce comes before the subject clause of the sentence: “Although they continue to get on my nerves, I will not slaughter all the innocents.”

Okay? Okay.

Now we turn to relative clauses, which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. Non-restrictive clauses take commas, restrictive clauses do not. Did you see what I did in the first sentence of this paragraph? The clause “which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive” is a nonrestrictive clause, so it needs a comma. If I had said:  “Now we turn to relative clauses which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive,” I would be restricting myself ONLY to relative clauses that can be either. Clear?

No, of course not. That’s a dumb example because the restriction is meaningless. Here’s a better one. “The king mandated the slaying of innocents who were mewling tediously.” This means the king ordered all the mewling innocents – and only the mewling innocents – be dispatched. The meaning is restricted. Presumably, placid innocents were allowed to live, this time anyway. If I’d said, “The king mandated the slaying of innocents, who were mewling tediously,” that suggests that all the little tykes are making an annoying noise and all needed dispatching. No restriction. Any peaceable tykes who were caught up in the fray were just out of luck. 

Plain as rain, no?

On to adverbs. Certain adverbs get commas every time, such as: therefore, however, nevertheless, moreover, furthermore.  Put a comma after it if it begins a sentence: “Nevertheless, it moves.”  If it occurs mid-sentence: “In this competition, however, the loser takes it all,” put commas on both sides.

(Note: I tend to put my commas inside my quotes, an Americanism. The British English practice of putting the comma outside the quotes  – or, if you prefer, the “inverted commas” – is perfectly fine. Even if it’s weird.)

Some adverbs aren’t so fussy, and context and mood can determine usage. “Tonight we dance” has a different feel from “Tonight, we dance.”  Just a bit of dramatic pause. But if that’s really what you’re going for, you might want to sell it a little harder, “Tonight – we dance”  or “But tonight, Esmeralda, we dance!”  It all depends on whether you’re writing a bleak nihilistic novel in a minimalist style, or a florid romance novel  about tango dancers and gypsies. 

But back to commas.

A common comma elision occurs with “too” when it is the ultimate word in a sentence. It’s perfectly valid to use a comma, but it isn’t really needed and looks a little fussy, and – here’s the key point – no one is going to be confused. On the other hand, if you say, “The tubas came in late after the alla breve section too” there is some ambiguity. Do you mean those damned tubas are always missing their cues? Or are you piling on because the pesky piccolos were tardy as well? Fortunately, context will usually make the distinction clear. If not, a comma before the “too” might be enough to suggest the former.

Or consider the following example: “Clang realized too late his airlock was open.” You could enclose “too late” in commas, but you don’t need to. However, if you want to add emphasis for ironic or dramatic or humorous purposes, commas might be the way to go: “Clang realized, too late, his airlock was open.” You could also use em dashes in the same manner: “Clang realized – too late – his airlock was open” emphasizing even more the irony or drama or humor of poor Clang’s plight. Increasing the distance between Clang’s moment of realization and what he actually realizes heightens the tension of the construction: “Clang realized – too late, as it turned out, because his dials were all in the red zone, and the canary alarm was chirping in a manner that, at long last, explained its nomenclature – his airlock was open.”  Here, of course, em dashes are needed to organize this absurd parade of clauses into some semblance of sense.

There are plenty of other uses for commas, like after introductory phrases and around appositives and to separate items on a list and between parts of place names. But when you really get down to the nitty gritty, commas have the same purpose as all punctuation: they make meaning clearer. When it comes to clarifying syntax, the humble comma does a lot of the heavy lifting. But unless the sentence is particularly long or highly complex or especially convoluted, you might be just fine omitting our little friend.  

Consider this nearly random sentence from The Great Gatsby:  

“In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.”

First off, the barb about the age of his female guests is nicely delivered. But if we wanted to call foul on the comma usage, we could. Technically, a comma should be used after “In the main hall.” It is an introductory phrase, after all. Does he need it? Not really. The meaning is clear. There’s no confusion. So no problem. But let’s look at where he does use a comma: “a brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins…” No comma is wanted here. The “and” might appear to call for it, but both clauses have the same subject: the bar – the bar was set up; the bar was stocked. What follows is not an independent clause. If the sentence had ended with the word gins, the comma would be glaringly wrong (and I’m sure Fitzgerald would’ve omitted it). BUT the clause that follows is long and complicated. This comma is more for pacing, I think. Fitz’s comma gives us a little breath before tackling the rest of the sentence. It is also an organizational tool. We know, without even having to think about it, that everything that follows is one long, breathless phrase. Could he have placed a comma after liquors?  Maybe. Again, there’s no technical need. The rest of the sentence is not an independent clause. The choice would be one of pacing and grouping, and clearly ol’ Scott wanted us to read it all in one gush. Possibly, he wanted us to assume that it was not only the cordials which were were forgotten but also the gins and liquors. And, possibly, I have gone way too deep into the weeds over this. At any rate, I’ll stop now.

Gertrude Stein said, A comma by helping you along and holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it”  – which is so smart-aleckishly convoluted, it’s hard to say for sure whether she was for them or against them (she was against them). But the point is made. If you can get away without it, and you really don’t want it cluttering up or slowing down your sentence, hey, try leaving that comma out. You have my permission, which is worth almost nothing. But make conscious choices. Every sentence is different. (Note: It’s easy to find humorous examples of how misused punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence, like: “Let’s go home and eat kids!” – but that kind of thing doesn’t really happen all that often.)

I’m going to leave it there. I certainly haven’t covered everything, and there are some briar patches out there (serial adjectives? Don’t get me started), so maybe next time.

Or maybe I’ll tackle hyphens.

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About Writers, Amazon, book promotion, humor

The Birth of Bill McSciFi (It Involves Porn)

SuccubusFinal(LargeWings)Once upon a time, in a land far far away, it was a dark and stormy night. This is not that story. Nope, this is the story of how I wrote a book, one that I got some people to read, and then used their helpful insights to polish. The experience was fun and enriching. I learned a lot. Mostly I learned how not to blow a hole in the solar system and how there are geneticists today thinking about chimeras.

That last part should scare the hell out of you.

If you want to know more about that just click here to read Eric Klein’s interview of me. Lots of science and some profanity.

Anyway, like I said, I wrote a book. Specifically THE BRITTLE RIDERS. It’s a fun look at human hubris, genetics gone wild, and the death of all things.

And, much to my surprise, I found a publisher, Azoth Khem, who liked it, offered me a contract, and set it on the path for human enjoyment.

Now the fun began.

I had commissioned a cover from Jiba Molei Anderson. It’s the image above and to the left of this article. As you can see it’s a dystopian succubus. As you may not have noticed, it signals that my book is porn.

You didn’t notice that? Well, neither did I, the publisher, or anyone involved, until Amazon flagged it and moved it to the erotic ghetto.

I have nothing against erotica. But if that’s what you’re looking for you were doomed to be disappointed by my book.  And if you were looking for sci fi you weren’t poring through the copious amounts of mommy porn and dino-erotica (yes, that’s a thing) to find it.

Suffice it to say sales sagged.

Then, after almost a year of screaming at clouds, it got moved out of there and into … you know what’s coming, don’t you? …. African Women’s studies.

While I tend to wear black, and do like funk, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an African woman. I’m so pale I’m nearly translucent. Once again, this was a bad fit. And, once again, I wasn’t in the right search categories.

Obviously I didn’t belong there either. Nice people, amazing authors, but not really what I do or am. And I doubt they would want to be associated with my dubious ilk.

After another round of screaming at clouds I finally got moved into the sci-fi dystopian categories.

YAY!

And then my book disappeared. On my Amazon page I was now credited with books on golf, a sport I loathe, tennis, one I know nothing about, and a country song. Oh, and a treatise on the Bible. That last one has since disappeared forever, but for one brief shining moment I looked like an author with wildly different interests and no way to tie them together.

A quick run through their search engine showed there are multiple people named Bill McCormick and Amazon had somehow, despite different account info for each, mixed them up.

This time I wasn’t going to yell at a cloud. I wanted a fucking human I could unleash my wrath on. So I called Amazon, found a human, he turned out to be nice, and we were off to the races.

He quickly understood the problem. So he started ticking off the titles into categories so he could straighten them out online. Bill McSports, Bill McCountry, and so on until he hit Bill McSciFi. The light bulb that went off in my head, when he said it, could have been a beacon in a dust storm.

I had the domain name within a week.

Now, with the books on the correct author pages, and me in the right categories, we were off to the races again …… right?

Wrong.

You see, Azoth Khem doesn’t just publish on Amazon. They deliver to stores, multiple online sites, and so on.  And some of those nice people, finally able to see what I hath wrought, thought the cover was too racy.

So I said FUCK, loudly and often, and got Brhi Peres to do a new cover for me. She’s wonderful to work with and tends to create images without people. Scandalous or otherwise.  Using silhouettes created by Brian “Bigger Lion” Daniels, she designed a pleasant dystopian hellscape that made everyone happy.

YAY!

Yeah, this time it is.

Nearly two years to the day from when it was originally published it is now headed to brick and mortar stores in the U.K., some in the U.S., and being added, internationally, in as many places as they can find to take it.

So there’s hope yet.

Now, if you buy me a drink sometime I’ll tell you the story about how a Russian site snagged a Kindle copy and sold 35,000 copies of it over there before we could stop them.

Yeah, that was entertaining. And, no, we never saw a penny.

Being an author is fun.

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blogging, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

GUEST BLOGGERS WELCOME!

guest blogsThe WritersCo-op welcomes blogs from those in the writing community, be they authors, publishers, editors, agents, cover & illustration artists, PAs, marketers, etc. We will not publish book promotions save for those of a member’s new release. But, we are interested in just about any blog that interests writers.

Submit your blog, or link to your blog, to GD<at>Deckard<dot>com.

For an idea of what we look for, scroll down past this notice, or click the ARCHIVES button at the top of this page. But don’t let what we’ve done suggest limits. We are always open to fresh ideas.

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publishing, Stories, Writers Co-op

Call for Submissions

The Writers’ Co-op invites submissions of short stories (and poems) for an anthology to be released later this year. No theme is set, but stories should broadly fall into the category of ‘weird’ (see below).

There is a maximum word count of 5000. But this is more a guideline than a strict limit – quality is the main criterion, not length. So a great story will be accepted, whether it’s 6000 words or 200 (flash fiction is welcome). But we’re looking for short stories, not novellas or extracts from novels – the story should be complete in itself. Though the anthology will be comprised mostly of stories, there will also be room for some poems or pieces of an experimental nature.

The deadline is 31st March 2018. Submissions should be sent in an attached file to curtis.bausse(at)outlook.com with the subject ‘Co-op submission’. They may have been previously published on personal websites (or elsewhere) but authors must have full rights to them when submitting. Authors will retain said rights after the story or poem is published in the Writers’ Co-op anthology.

All proceeds will go to the Against Malaria Foundation. Why? Because the (hopefully not meagre but probably far from spectacular) royalties can make a big difference: $3 buys a long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net which protects two people for up to three years.

That’s for the practicalities (if you have further questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch via the contact page). But what is meant by ‘weird’?

The question is addressed in the previous post, but since I’m here I get the chance to add my two cents’ worth (or grain of salt as they say in French). Like many categories, it’s fuzzy, because it stands in distinction to ‘normal’, and there’s no common acceptance of what is normal. Not all writers will approach it the same way, and so much the better – we hope for plenty of variety. At the core of weirdness, though, is the upsetting of expectations: normality, in the sense of what we’re accustomed to, doesn’t follow the course that led to us form those expectations. Where it goes – somewhere disturbing or hilarious – is entirely the writer’s choice. Or why not hilariously disturbing? Indeed, one advantage of ‘weird’ is that it allows for humour as much as for horror, so go for it!

How weird does it have to be? Anything from full on, over-the-top freaky to subtly odd and unsettling. So no worries if weird isn’t your usual style – a few deft touches can suffice. Those little moments of strangeness that don’t fit into what we know of the world or the people around us, those hints of a deeper mystery that defies explanation. Give us writing that shifts our perceptions, leads us to experience, bubbling up through the regularity and routine, the fundamental weirdness of life. To quote the Count of Lautréamont, author of the Chant de Maldoror, if your piece is ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,’ there’s every chance that we’ll love it.

We look forward to reading you.

Agne-s-Varda-beau-comme-la-rencontre-fortuite-1

Agnès Varda: La rencontre fortuite
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Uncategorized

This Is Personal

I’m sitting in a coffee bar on G street. I’m not a coffee bar writer, or at least not especially a coffee bar writer. Truth is, I could always write any old place, and I often did: a doctor’s waiting room, a park bench, the front seat of a my (parked) car. Even at home. It didn’t matter. I always carried a crummy spiral bound notebook and a couple of ballpoints with me. I wrote six novels and a memoir using that method.

Things have changed. In truth, I’ve had to seriously consider whether I’m even a writer anymore, whether that’s really an accurate way of identifying myself. Not to others — I’ve rarely ever called myself a writer — but to myself. Is that still a defining part of my identity?

I’m not normally one for a lot of existential soul searching, and certainly not one for doing this kind of thing in public. It doesn’t interest me very much, and I’m damned sure it wouldn’t interest anyone else. But I’ve been pretty scarce around these boards lately. I’ve been a poor member of this community for the last year or so, and I think it’s time I explained what’s been going on, about what led me to this grim precipice.

And no, I’m not going to jump. The time for desperate measures has passed.

About a year and a half ago, my son was arrested. He had just turned 18. It was a violent crime. Mercifully, no one was hurt, but they could have been. People could have died, and he would’ve been at least partly to blame.

He sat in the local jail for almost a year waiting for trial. I visited him twice a week (which was about all that he was allowed). He called several more times a week. We didn’t talk about his crime very much. Everything you say on a jail phone is recorded; everything you write is copied and kept: it can all be used against you. He didn’t see his lawyers (he had three at various times, all public defenders) often, but the one thing they were adamant about was that he shouldn’t be talking about his crime. So we didn’t. It was okay. At first, of course, my curiosity was eating me up, but I understood the need NOT to talk about it, and after a while, I almost stopped caring, hard as that may be to believe. I’m still curious about what happened that night, but I don’t need to know anymore. I have assumed the worst. I’ve stared into that particular horror, and the truth is, I still love my son. I still hope and believe that when he finally gets out, he can still have a decent life ahead of him. I don’t think he is evil. I think he made a lot of stupid decisions, at an age when most people make stupid decisions. His were worse than most…

But I’m getting off the topic. About six months ago, he took a plea deal. His lawyer, incidentally, believed his story, but his partner-in-crime, his co-perpetrator, put all the blame on my son, and the lawyer said going to trial was risky. If the jury found against him, he could’ve gotten a life sentence. So he took a deal. It was a lousy deal. In truth, I think he got rooked by the DA’s office (who seemed to be highly motivated to show how tough she was on middle class criminals in our crime ridden city) but that’s off topic as well. He’s still responsible for his actions, and he’s the first to admit it. To his credit, he’s never tried to shuffle off blame or complained about the apparent unfairness. He wants to pay for his crime. And pay he will. There are still factors that could change his eventual sentence, but the most likely scenario is that he will spend about ten years in a state penitentiary.

That’s where he is now. We haven’t been able to visit him yet (there is a whole process of getting permission which is time consuming and bureaucratically convoluted). He has called once, but apparently gets few opportunities to use the phone. Even letters are infrequent and unpredictable, for various reasons. But he says he is okay for now.

Ten years to go.

I’ve never been a conscientious writer. There have been times when I have dutifully managed to produce a daily word count, but that hasn’t been the norm. I’ve had fallow periods before, but nothing quite like what I’ve experienced in the last 18 months. It’s hard not to blame it on my kid the criminal, my son the jail bird, my child the prison inmate. We’ve found out things about his life before the crime that we certainly never wanted to know, and that no parent should ever have to know, but all too many of us must. It has made me question almost everything. It certainly shifted the stupid novel I was working on to the back burner. Hell! Back burner? The whole stove was off. I wasn’t even going into that mental kitchen anymore.

Really, I blame him for a lot of things, but I can’t blame him for my writerly crisis of faith. Writing is a choice and a discipline. You can’t blame anybody but yourself, and really, you shouldn’t blame anyone. Not writing is also a valid choice, just a sad one — for the writer anyway. As far as readers go, well, there are plenty of other books to read. The world will get along just fine if I never write another word.

So this is really about me. And — spoiler alert — no, I haven’t given up. I haven’t jumped into that particular abyss of self. For the last couple of months, I’ve been making this daily pilgrimage to this charming, noisy, college town coffee shop. I have my laptop. I have my notebooks, in which are scrawled the words I wrote — some almost two years ago — the very rough draft of a novel that, it turns out, is probably nearly 500 pages long. I sit, drink a dark roast, and spend an hour, maybe two, unearthing this erstwhile corpse. It isn’t bad. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it when I finish it. I suppose I’ll self-publish it (I am so past the whole find-a-publisher part of the process, though I imagine I probably could. I’ve done it before.)

But that’s another topic, and for right now, it isn’t the important part. I need to finish this book. I need to do this every day. After all, I have other books to write.

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About Writers, inspiration, writing technique

Be Ready When She Comes

The other day, this article, a speech on racism and science fiction (dating back to 1998, no less), surfaced in my Facebook feed. I’d never seen it before but, being a Samuel Delany fan from way back, I dug right in.

Before I had even cleared the first third of it, I found myself hurriedly putting it aside to work on the second draft of my own current WIP. The damned thing had been fighting me hard—not because the plot or characters were in any way unclear in my mind, but there was simply no consistent voice yet. WIP’s come in all forms, and they all fight us to some extent, but this one had been particularly tough—petulant, thorny, recalcitrant—it had resisted all my efforts to get a groove going. The novel, typically, didn’t care about what I was trying to do. I hadn’t gotten her attention yet.

Somewhere between George Schuyler’s horrific and ironic description of a lynching and Delany’s own telling of his first pointedly racist rejection letter, I hit pay dirt. All at once, I had a new beginning for the first chapter, and with it, a new sense of where I was going and why I was going there. My bristly companion was suddenly purring and eager, both soothed and enlivened by the fact that I was finally doing something it liked.

What had changed? There is nothing in my book that relates directly to what Delany was talking about. It is not about racism. It certainly isn’t science fiction. It doesn’t take place during the time period he is mostly talking about. (The article, by the way, is well worth the read.) Yet somehow, despite the lack of relevance, something sparked. Some bit of current leaped a nineteen year gap and jumpstarted my always dubious creative process.

That’s an off-the-cuff metaphor, but it’s an apt one.

My admiration for Delany is nearly boundless. Indeed, I think he is one of the finest writers of the second half of the 20th Century. His voice was both clear and curious, earnest and playful. He wrote beautiful sentences. He took science fiction seriously while still regarding all labels warily.

The muse (and I use the term reluctantly) cannot be coaxed or coddled. She appears when she will, without warning or reason, in whatever motley garb the moment might supply—a blaze of light, a scrabbling at the window, the tickle of hairs rising on the back of your neck. Being divine in nature, she rarely speaks anything like sense. In fact, she often says nothing at all. But her mere presence, even fleeting and uncertain, can awaken that starburst of astonishment. You do know what you’re doing. Actually, you’re doing it already.

It has been said that the only way to court the muse is by doing the work at hand. Let her find you writing. I’m not sanguine about that. It seems to me, we often labor along without her help for long dark days or seasons. Writing when you are not inspired is the norm, not the exception, at least for me. But at the very least, if you are writing, then maybe you will be ready when she appears, if she appears. Try being in the right place at the right time. It couldn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, inspiration goes as abruptly as she comes. So when she shows, burn whatever oil you have to keep the lights on. Give her anything she wants. And write.

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About Writers, reading, writing technique

Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

This could, I hope, become an ongoing series, but not all written by me. Anyone can take a turn, and it will be more interesting for the variety. It springs from Mimi’s recent suggestion that someone should post  some first paragraphs from novels or short stories.  Discussion, consideration, ratings and arguments could follow after in the comments section. It sounded like fun to me.  As an extra-added attraction, I’m not going to name the author or the book. Of course, some you (or some of you) will know instantly. Others may puzzle. They all come from books I enjoy or admire. Some are rather plain, others audaciously unconventional.

The title of the post is just me goofing around.  After all, a good first paragraphs can knock us on our ass.  It can seduce into opening an unknown door.  It can dazzle and baffle in a way that makes going forward our only choice.

Those are, of course, only three possibilities.

 

1:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

(break)

I begin with an unbeginning. Or maybe with an unfinished ending. The confusion of the first three lines could seem to some as mere artsiness for its own sake, just fancy word-flinging, but that’s too easy a dismissal. This massive books creeps in from the mist and the smoke, entering our consciousness like some misshapen beast. During its 800 pages, it will find and lose solid footing in reality a dozen times.  The “All I know, you know” paragraph lays out themes and images that echo throughout the rest of the text. The semantic twists of this obscure list knock us off stride before we even begin, but that is only too appropriate for a novel that will never stop lurching and turning (careening and grinding) all the way through to the

2:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT.  You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

(break)

Another appealingly unconventional beginning. This was actually a very popular novel a few years ago, which only goes to show that you can begin a novel any way at all and still succeed in engaging the reader’s attention, as long as you know and trust your craft.

3:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture a forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

(break)

Such juicy writing!  They say don’t begin with description. This book rarely stops describing things. There’s very little dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is the one seen here at the beginning—the forest itself. The last sentence could be a motto for the whole novel.

 

4:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are know for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. 

(break)

So quiet. So simple. So ominous.  In very few lines, two characters have already been given weight, contour, and personality.  I particularly like the language, which is at once idiosyncratic, arcane and lovely.

 

5:

I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three of four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?

(break)

I particularly like the notion of failing to die, almost as if something monstrous had happened.  This was a quirky and troubling little novel. I think the opening does a nice job of setting the reader ill at ease.  (Question: Why “were waiting for me” instead of “was waiting for me”? Some foreshadowing that his future life is somehow plural?)

6:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

(break)

Yes, this a novel—a novel that happens to begin with 99 lines worth of heroic couplets.  The rest of the novel is several hundred pages of commentary by one of the least reliable narrators you will ever meet. The poem itself is marvelous, playful, and heart rending. The commentary is a whacky tale of political intrigue by a madman who uses an academic exercise as an excuse to tell his own (perhaps) delusional tale.

All right. Enough from me.  Can anyone identify the openings? More to the point, how do these work for you? What thoughts do they inspire?

 

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