Category Archives: Opinion

BEFORE THE END-LINES

Whole books are written about the first lines or first pages which must capture the agent, editor or reader’s imagination, heart, or attention. Noah Lukeman did it in January 2005 with The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.  Then, in April 2007, Les Edgerton published Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. Both books soared to success among writers, editors and agents and continue to be  widely recommended. In each, the goal is clear: don’t screw up your chances by shooting-yourself-in-the-foot with grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, poor imagery, or unimaginative writing on those first lines or pages. Each author makes recommendations, gives illustrations and attempts to inspire us to better writing from that first sentence.

So, how do Lukeman and Edgerton start their books? What are their first lines?

Lukeman: “Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art.”

Edgerton: “Why a book on just story beginnings? The simple truth is, if your beginning doesn’t do the job it needs to, the rest of the story most likely won’t be read by the agent or editor or publisher you submit it to.”

And so, they caught agents, editors and publishers with their openings.

 This sort of observation is usually followed by examples from Great Literature of profound, exciting or just plain noteworthy beginnings:

        Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his arm.”

Lee goes on to tie the broken arm to the children’s recall of “when things started,” setting the tone and time of the story in our imaginings.

       John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.”

Steinbeck draws vivid word pictures of the advancing drought and how it will impact the families in its wake, not the least of which is the tragically flawed Joad family.    

       Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: “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.”

 McCarthy potently uses repetitive language to engage the emotions: “pale and thin…thin and ragged linen shirt…rags of snow.” We are there with that child…and so is the agent, editor, publisher and reader.

Clearly, Lukeman and Edgerton are on to something…as are these classic writers.  How about your first lines and pages? Do they ring with imagery, set the tone of your work, show us the beginnings of your world?  Do you lasso us with emotion, show us your character, plunk us right into the action? You might check the books on your shelves or the manuscripts in your computer and see what you find in those first sentences.

I cut my first chapter out of BY GRACE a few years ago when an agent complained about the length of the mss. My “Max Perkins” of an editor(real name, Marlene Cullen) recently convinced me to restore those pages for they set the tone, showed the character and her important back story in a way that had gone missing in the modified work. The importance of finding the right first lines and pages was underscored for me.

 And what about the final words of the book? What of their function? Do they “sum it up?” Entice us to look/wish for the sequel? Leave us dissatisfied, annoyed or unresolved?

I’ll take a look at “endings” at another time.

FROM MY READING CHAIR

Writing gurus have said over the years, “write what you love and love what you write.”  That comes easily for me for Historical Fiction is what I read and write. Of course I depart on both counts from time to time. I love a good mystery/suspense/adventure story or a biography, usually of  a writer.  Then, there are the mainstream novels I should read but barely get to a smidgen of them. Since this is my Blog, from time to time, I will share with you my impressions of books I read.  Today, it is a batch of historicals.

Child of the Northern Spring: Book One of the Guinevere Trilogy (Paperback) published (re-issue) 2010 by Sourcebooks, 545 pages

Persia Woolley has walked the walk in her research on King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere. She brings the times (6th century Britain) alive with poetical visions and imaginings of the people and characters of Camelot and its origins. Accurate in detail and filled with the tone, habits and customs of the day, we are thrust back into an historical time coated with mystery and mythology. More than this, Woolley develops stories of what might have been the early lives of Guinevere and Arthur, drawing on legend, history and extrapolations of her imagination. The characters come alive as people with strong feelings, dreams and hopes…and flaws. The reader is granted a glimpse into the strife, political and religious, that was the emergence of a united Britain. Woolley is, indeed, a gifted writer and Arthurian specialist. Sourcebooks is to be commended for re-issuing this wonderful trilogy.

Dina’s Lost Tribe (Paperback) published 2010 by iUniverse, 402 pages

Brigitte Goldstein holds a PhD in history and I am tempted to say it doesn’t show; by that I mean that her story is not a thesis, a lecture or dry accounting. It abounds with heart and the lyricism of poetry. The story is complex, weaving its way from the 13th to the 20th centuries. A secret village and culture hidden in the Pyrenees for centuries is gradually brought to light through the codes of its founder and the interpretations and fears of its successors. When historian Nina Aschauer seeks her mysterious birthplace, she meets the love of her life and fades from view. On finding Dina’s codex, Nina enlists the help of her scholarly friend Etoile and cousin Henner. The unraveling begins. Rich in the history of Judaism and of French culture, Dina’s Lost Tribe offers a unique worldview from an author well-versed in both…and captivating adventures well-told.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany (Hardback) published 2011 by Random House, 397 pages

Susan Vreeland gained access to a treasure trove of Clara Driscoll’s letters that reveal a 21st century truth about a 19-20th century icon. The amazing output of work that came from the Louis Comfort Tiffany studios nearly always carried his name with seldom a nod to other designers. The letters to her family came to light in 2005 and, with them, Clara Driscoll’s design history of Tiffany lamps and windows emerged. Vreeland has drawn a dynamic sketch of Clara, her loves, her skills and her turmoil. As she leads the Women’s Department strike for equity of wages with the Men, she is magnificent.  In love, she is tragic and vulnerable. In dealings with the genius who is her boss, she is both timid and brave. The book coats a vivid picture of the times as well as the characters.

The Shanghai Girls (Paperback) published 2010 by Random House, 314 pages

Lisa See writes passionately of her Chinese heritage no matter the era or place. In this, perhaps the darkest of her books, we see two sisters mired in the falsity of the glittering life that was Shanghai of the 1930’s. As “beautiful girls,” they are ill-prepared for their father’s fall into ruin or the invasion of the Japanese army; their arranged marriages to two “American-Chinese” helps them in their flight but confounds them in their new reality that is Angel Island and Los Angeles. This is a book of relationships, the ins, outs and twists of sisterhood, parenthood, marriage and extended family. As the book draws to a close, the sisterhood that has dominated the story evolves into a new understanding and depth. Can a sequel be far behind, one that marks the return to 1970’s China?

All of these books are available through Amazon or your favorite independent bookstore.