Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘American Book Review

My own opening lines

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For a writer, there’s nothing more terrifying than a blank page—especially when you know that this page is only the first of three hundred or so that need to be filled. This gives a novel’s first sentence, whatever form it takes, a particularly talismanic quality. As Joan Didion points out, once you write that opening line, doors are already closing. Where once the possibilities seemed limitless, now you’re locking yourself down. So that first sentence had better be damned good.

Or so you tell yourself. In reality, it’s unlikely that the first version of a novel’s opening lines will bear any resemblance to their appearance in the final draft. Like all sentences, they will be polished, edited, even cut altogether. With Kamera, which was far from my first novel—though it will be the first to be published—it took me months of fiddling before I came up with an opening that I liked, and even then, I had my doubts. Here’s what it looked like in the end:

Andrey was nearly at the border when he ran into the thieves. By then, he had been on the road for three days. As a rule, he was a careful driver, but at some point in the past hour, his mind had wandered, and as he was coming over a low rise, he almost collided with two cars that were parked in the road ahead.

Now, this opening may never top the American Book Review list, but for what it is, I think it works. When I wrote it, as usual, James M. Cain was at the back of my mind: I wanted to get the reader into the story quickly, cleanly, and without a lot of fuss. And I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with information. Note, for instance, that I don’t say where the border is. In my first draft, I mentioned that Andrey was “ten kilometers north of the Ukrainian border, just outside Shebekino,” but I eventually decided that too many specifics would only slow the opening of the story down. I hoped that the name “Andrey” by itself would evoke a location, and that the word “thieves” would have resonances of its own. And above all, I hoped that the initial situation was interesting enough that the reader would go on to the next paragraph.

For a short story, the challenges are slightly different. Just as the opening moments of a television show need to grab the viewer’s attention in a way that those of a movie do not, a short story generally needs to begin with more of a narrative hook. Usually, this hook can take the form of implied—which is more interesting than overt—action or violence; an unusual detail; or a striking line of dialogue. And it’s best not to appear to try too hard. An author who plants his narrative hooks too blatantly can seem like a college freshman pawing artlessly at a gidle, when, as John Gardner says, he should be more like a magician effortlessly forcing cards into his victim’s hand. Here’s how I opened “The Last Resort,” a novelette that appeared in the September 2009 issue of Analog:

The shotgun was not aimed directly at Helki, but its barrel was pointed in her direction, which was more than enough for her to take it personally.

Reading this sentence again now, it strikes me that maybe I was, in fact, trying a little too hard. In any case, though, the story sold, which is more than I can say for many others, and readers seemed to like it well enough. Here, the narrative hook is the threat of implied violence, or at least aggression, and perhaps—or so I’d like to think—a hint of the main character’s personality. Given the choice, though, I prefer to open with something incrementally more subtle. Here’s what I wrote for “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to appear in Analog in June:

The kawataro stood at the side of the road. Hakaru saw it for the first time as he was trudging along the highway, suitcase rolling behind him in the rain. It had been half a mile by foot from the train station, and although he had been looking for the turnoff to the village, it was so narrow, less than six paces wide, that he was on the point of walking past it entirely when the statue caught his eye.

Here, the narrative hook rests solely on the word “kawataro,” which I assume is unfamiliar to most readers, who would hopefully read onward to discover what a kawataro was. (Note that it’s important not to be too coy about this. I explain what a kawataro is, sort of, in the following paragraph. A writer who refuses to explain important details for an extended run of pages, solely for the purpose of prolonging the suspense, is only going to annoy the reader.) Ideally, the hint of an unusual setting, which turns out to be a small fishing village in Japan, works as a hook as well.

As for the last kind of narrative hook, dialogue, it’s what I use at the opening of “The Boneless One,” which I expect will appear in Analog by the end of the year:

“Before we go on deck, I should make one thing clear,” Ray Wiley said. “We’re nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle.”

A little cute, maybe, but I think it works. As with everything else in writing, such things are a matter of taste, and every writer ends up developing his or her own personal approach to the problem. In the end, with practice, there’s something a little mechanical about writing good first sentences—which is why even the best opening lines, if too carefully calibrated to arouse the reader’s interest, can seem like something of an exercise. Much less mechanical is the question of where to begin the story itself, which I’ll be discussing in more detail tomorrow.

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon…”

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Now that I’ve already looked at the problem of endings in possibly excessive detail, it’s time to turn to the even greater challenge of beginnings. The first sentence of a novel is, obviously, the most visible; it’s under the maximum amount of pressure to be interesting and graceful; and it can be fetishized and scrutinized out of all proportion to its actual importance. As a result, many first sentences have an air of desperation. (American Book Review’s list of the hundred “best” first sentences, read consecutively, makes for oddly depressing reading.) That said, I can only begin by quoting my own favorite opening, from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

No desperation there—just a clean headlong plunge into story. I don’t want to analyze this opening too much, except to say that it beautifully exemplifies the quality of momentum that Tom Wolfe, among others, has praised in Cain’s work: no other novelist has ever been faster at coming out of his corner. Cain was the most impressive stylist in the history of the suspense form—even Edmund Wilson, no fan of the genre, was an admirer of Cain—and he did it with language that was clean, direct, and surprisingly subtle. (And the wording is more nuanced than it looks. Changing “hay truck” to “fruit truck,” for instance, would alter the entire mood of the opening.)

The crucial quality of an opening sentence or paragraph, of course, is that it keeps the reader going. Most writers try to do this with action, often violent or melodramatic, but it can also be done with character, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does in The Sign of the Four:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Any story that begins with the words “Sherlock Holmes…” is interesting in itself, so it’s useful to note that this is only the second Holmes novel ever published, written when Conan Doyle was barely thirty, but already a master at seizing the reader’s attention. (Perhaps too much of a master: his depiction of Holmes using cocaine was still controversial enough, nearly a century later, that the above paragraph was cut entirely from The Boy’s Sherlock Holmes, which was the edition I read growing up.)

The examples I’ve mentioned so far come from genre novels, but even a literary novel with a more leisurely pace benefits from a good, clean opening. For sheer magic and confidence, it’s hard to top the first sentence of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale:

There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood.

But not every great novel has a great opening sentence. It’s difficult to imagine a more snooze-inducing opening line than this one:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.

This is from The Once and Future King, and I can only assure you that it gets a lot better from there. (It’s likely that T.H. White was deliberately trying to convey an air of boredom in the first sentence, in order to contrast the young Arthur’s conventional schooling with his much more exciting educational experiences to come. This, needless to say, is a strategy that most novelists would be advised to avoid, at least at first.)

What I’ve said before about closing sentences applies equally well to their opening counterparts: there are as many different kinds as there are novels. If there’s one rule that I’d encourage writers to follow, though, it’s not to try too hard. A novel isn’t a newspaper article; not every relevant detail of time, place, and circumstance needs to be crammed into the first sentence. Many suspense novelists, in particular, seem so terrified that the reader will read the first sentence and nothing else that they overload their openings like a fishing line strung with multiple flies. The result is often a sentence like this:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

This particular opening, with its infamous “renowned curator,” has been so thoroughly eviscerated elsewhere (notably here and here) that no further commentary would seem necessary. And yet the sentence does work: millions of people, for better or worse, kept reading. Which suggests, as I’ve already said, that it’s hard to lay down any definitive rules, only examples. Tomorrow, then, I’ll be looking at the openings of some of my own stories, and talking about what at least one writer is thinking when he stares at that first, terrifyingly blank page.

Making an end

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Yesterday, I wrote briefly about movies with great closing lines, of which there are surprisingly few. The last lines of books present the opposite problem: there are almost too many to choose from. The last line of a novel is almost always of interest, and just a glance at the American Book Review’s list of the hundred best closing lines (available as a PDF here) is a reminder of how many great ones there are, and how hard it is to reach any kind of consensus.

I hope you don’t mind, then, if my own choices are pointedly personal and idiosyncratic. My favorite closing line from any novel—which, oddly enough, didn’t even make the longer list of the American Book Review’s nominees—is probably from John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, in which Harry Angstrom, after a few bewildering months on his own, finds himself back in bed with his estranged wife:

He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?

It’s a little hard to appreciate out of context, but that final “O.K.?”—with its strangely moving terminal question mark—sometimes strikes me as the best thing Updike ever wrote. It rather astonishingly manages to evoke the radio transmissions of the moon landing (whose repeated uses of a taciturn “O.K.” run throughout the novel), the ending of Ulysses, and the rhythm of the final lines of Updike’s own Rabbit, Run: “…he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”

And here are a few more personal favorites, from works of nonfiction as well as novels, that didn’t make the American Book Review’s list. From The Phantom Tollbooth:

“Well, I would like to make another trip,” he said, jumping to his feet; “but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time. There’s just so much to do right here.”

From The Corrections:

She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.

From T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

When Feisal had gone, I made to Allenby the last (and also I think the first) request I ever made him for myself—leave to go away. For a while he would not have it; but I reasoned, reminding him of his year-old promise, and pointing out how much easier the New Law would be if my spur were absent from the people. In the end he agreed; and then at once I knew how much I was sorry.

From Walden:

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Of course, even the greatest closing line loses much of its power when taken out of context. Tomorrow, I’m going to be talking about the endings of novels, and how it feels, at least for one novelist, to approach that final moment.

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